Alberta Premier Jason Kenney decreed earlier this week that gyms could reopen for some low-intensity workouts. Libraries were reopened, with capacity capped at 15 per cent of fire code.
And that was it. No change for retailers. Nothing for restaurants. No updates for hotels, banquet halls and conference centres. The rules for kids’ sports remained untouched. Mr. Kenney effectively abandoned the United Conservative Party’s reopening schedule, where restrictions are benchmarked against the number of COVID-19 patients in hospital.
Angela Pitt, the UCP member representing Airdrie-East, a riding adjacent to Calgary, took a jab on Facebook at Mr. Kenney’s half-measures.
“I’m going to the gym today to not sweat or breathe hard. Wish me luck,” the former Wildrose Party member wrote.
Ms. Pitt is among the six UCP caucus members who openly denounced the government’s blurry approach to reopening this week. The six outspoken UCP MLAs consist of five former Wildrose MLAs and one rookie from the party’s right flank. Mr. Kenney has faced months of pushback from within his caucus, on everything from pandemic restrictions to coal-mining policy. Alberta conservatives routinely push out leaders – think Alison Redford, Ed Stelmach and Ralph Klein at the twilight of his political career – and now Mr. Kenney is facing his own internal strife.
Last month, Ms. Pitt and Drew Barnes, another one of the six MLAs to publicly criticize the latest reopening announcement, joined an Ontario-based group calling itself the “End the Lockdowns National Caucus.” At the time, Mr. Kenney said his party welcomed internal debate and had a “wider latitude” for members of caucus speaking their minds.
The latest round of dissent stems from a plan Mr. Kenney rolled out to quell frustrated MLAs and their constituents in January. Back then, rural MLAs were pushing for a regional approach to restrictions. Businesses wanted some sort of reopening timeline. And so Mr. Kenney unveiled benchmarks. If, by March 1, there were fewer than 450 people with COVID-19 in hospital, the government would consider easing restrictions on indoor fitness, retailers and other businesses.
Alberta counted 257 COVID-19 patients in hospital at the beginning of the week. Disgruntled MLAs and thousands of Albertans believed that, by the government’s own schedule, gyms and other businesses should have been granted more leeway.
David Hanson, a Wildrose alum and UPC MLA for Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul, is among those challenging Mr. Kenney’s cautious approach. The group says they were not consulted prior to the announcement and if the province was going to move the goalposts, that should have been made clear to caucus.
“We assumed we would follow through with what we told Albertans we would do,” Mr. Hanson said in an interview. “When we come out and make a promise, we need to stand by it – and live with the consequences.”
The reopening plan does not pledge to lift restrictions when certain benchmarks are cleared. Instead, it says if Alberta meets the hospitalization targets, “decisions to move to the next step will be considered.”
So far, Mr. Kenney is tolerating MLAs who publicly criticize the government. The UCP, which was formed after Mr. Kenney urged Wildrose members and Progressive Conservative supporters to merge, believes in free speech and diversity of opinion, according to the Premier. But this may not be enough to pacify UCP members.
Mr. Hanson, when asked whether he still supports Mr. Kenney, said: “I stand up for the unity of the party that we put together. And absolutely, I think we need to act within the best interests of Albertans.”
The Premier’s office did not respond to a request for comment. The UCP board has not decided whether there will soon be a leadership review.
Mr. Kenney modelled the UCP’s merger after the formation of the Conservative Party of Canada, which united the right on the federal level. Stephen Harper, when he led the federal party, declined to discipline those on the far right when they spoke out on moral issues, such as abortion. That was enough to satisfy those on the right, said Lisa Young, a professor at the School of Public Policy at the University of Calgary. But the difference between Mr. Harper’s decision not to discipline outspoken members and Mr. Kenney’s reasoning is that the former prime minister’s critics were focusing on peripheral issues, she said.
“The dissent [inside the UCP] is on an issue that is central to what the government is doing,” Prof. Young said, calling the situation a “mounting crisis” for Mr. Kenney. “He looks weak. He can’t keep his caucus in line.”
Prof. Young believes Mr. Kenney can survive as leader if a group of right-wing MLAs splinter off because more moderate members of the UCP cannot electorally afford a shift to the right and the young party lacks strong leadership candidates. “The question is ... can the party get re-elected if there is a viable party to the right that is splitting the vote?” Prof. Young said.
David Taras, a political analyst at Mount Royal University in Calgary, cautioned against underestimating Mr. Kenney, especially if the economy begins to percolate. But repairing the party will take an enormous energy and Mr. Kenney may not have the ability to assuage concerns.
“He’s always been great on the attack,” Prof. Taras said. “But whether he has the skills ... to be a peacemaker [and] shore up a party that is falling – I don’t know. That’s a whole different skill set.”
Mr. Kenney was largely elected on his promise to revive the economy, but his string of stumbles may have Albertans questioning his overall competence, according to Lori Williams, a professor at Mount Royal University.
“Nobody elected Jason Kenney because they thought he was warm and fuzzy, but they did expect him to be able to handle the challenge that Alberta is facing.”
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