Is Kenney the enemy within?
Stephen Harper has seen the enemy and once again it lurks within.
As the internal Conservative debate unfolds over the government’s promise to provide income splitting as a core of its 2015 campaign, the focus should be on the backbench and Employment Minister Jason Kenney.
There may be no daylight between Harper and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, as they back away from a pledge that helped propel them to majority in 2011, but the proposal enjoys broad support in his caucus.
Some of it is on the substance of the measure. Much more of it is discontent over potentially being asked to knock on doors in 2015 and explain an unkept promise in the absence, as one MP put it, of any fundamental change in facts.
As for Kenney, his mixed message on the issue is another indication of a man creating space between him and the Conservative team and his name was invoked regularly by MPs in favour of income splitting.
“I look forward to getting out there and campaigning on income splitting in 2015,” said Conservative MP Brad Trost of Saskatoon.
Support for the measure does not break down along social conservative lines and does not mirror previous incipient caucus outbreaks over anti-abortion issues, even though income splitting would provide a disincentive for the non-working spouse — usually the female — re-entering the workforce.
It appears most popular among Conservatives representing heavily populated suburban areas in the greater Toronto area, Calgary and Vancouver, and among new Canadians, already heavily courted by the government.
Trost, in fact, says he hasn’t spoken to a colleague who doesn’t support going ahead with the 2011 promise.
But there is also that link between candidate and voter. One Conservative MP blanketed his riding with 50,000 flyers touting the program.
“It is part of the covenant between us and the voters,” said Brent Rathgeber, a former Conservative MP from Edmonton who now sits as an independent. “The covenant is such a central focus, it will be hard for many members to back away on this.”
“I want to be able to go to the doorstep in 2015 with the platform from 2011 and say, ‘Look, we got 100 per cent of these done.’ And if we can’t get 100 per cent of them done, we have to deliver on the big ones — and this was a big one.”
It’s difficult to imagine how a recalcitrant backbench could convince Harper and Flaherty to run with the policy after Flaherty has already told the country he is “not sure that overall it benefits our society.”
Opposition parties would already have that clip teed up for their 2015 ads. Think-tanks from both ends of the political spectrum have analyzed the policy and found that the vast majority of Canadians would get nothing from the proposal and those who do benefit need the boost least.
Conservative MPs will be hearing about this at home this week with the Commons on a weeklong break.
Not all Conservatives are sticking to public talking points — Laurie Hawn of Edmonton, Steven Fletcher, a former cabinet minister, Paul Calandra, the prime minister’s parliamentary secretary, and Joe Preston, an MP from the London area, are among those who have veered away from the songbook.
Which leads us to Kenney. It’s hard to determine exactly where he stands, but he is not mindlessly parroting talking points.
“We made a platform commitment to introduce income splitting when we get to a balanced budget,” Kenney said, although he added there are different ways of “framing” that commitment to get to the bottom line of tax fairness for families.
The employment minister has stepped out to represent Team Kenney a number of times in recent months, defending Harper’s former chief of staff Nigel Wright and calling on Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a friend of Flaherty’s, to step down.
That led to a slanging match between Flaherty and Kenney, overheard in the Commons.
In one of the Conservative election planning memos leaked last week, the party reported it had received indications from almost every member of caucus and cabinet as to whether they would run again.
The only one who did not make himself available was Kenney. That doesn’t mean Kenney isn’t running again, but it is just another indication that he has long since slipped the leash.
For his next act he may become the patron saint of Conservatives who want to campaign on promises kept, either by design or by being pushed there by those who want him to lead.
Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.