On Wednesday morning, the thousands of votes sitting under lock and key in a secure Deloitte Canada facility in Alberta’s capital will be opened and counted, deciding the fate of Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership of a party he helped create just five years ago.
The vote marks the culmination of two years of open dissent within his caucus from party members and MLAs unhappy with pandemic restrictions and the leadership style of the former federal cabinet minister. Mr. Kenney will find out late Wednesday afternoon whether his United Conservative Party wants to keep him on as leader, or show him the door.
Even if the majority of voters cast ballots for Mr. Kenney, his critics are unlikely to be pacified – particularly if it’s a narrow victory.
If the internal strife that has beleaguered the party shows no signs of abating, Mr. Kenney will need to bring rogue MLAs into line – and he told The Globe and Mail this week that should his leadership be reaffirmed, he will concentrate on making the caucus “more focused, disciplined and professional.”
Mr. Kenney believes this leadership review is unlike any before it in Alberta. In the past, such reviews typically had “1,500 delegates – who may have had some adult beverages the night before – waking up in a Red Deer hotel and going and grabbing a coffee, casting a vote,” he said.
A relatively small number would have a grievance with the leader, he said, but most would default to support.
“That was the normal politics. No fuss, no muss. But there’s nothing normal about this.”
Instead, he thinks that thousands of Albertans who signed up to vote on his leadership have never before held a UCP, Wildrose or Progressive Conservative party membership, but want to “express their anger and frustration” at the government’s decisions about pandemic health measures.
“This is not 1,000 party regulars at a convention. This is a totally different process.”
Mr. Kenney’s own definition of victory is also unusual among Alberta leadership reviews. In 2006, for example, long-serving premier Ralph Klein faced a review by his PC party amid an internal revolt. Mr. Klein felt he would need 75-per-cent approval to continue as leader – and announced his resignation shortly after receiving just 55 per cent.
But Mr. Kenney is holding himself to a lower standard. For the current Alberta premier, 50 per cent plus one is a win.
“It’s a majority in any democracy,” he told The Globe. “Obviously I’d like to have a higher number than that, but there are some unique factors here.”
The voting process itself has come under intense scrutiny. Originally supposed to take place in-person on April 9, a surge of members registering for the meeting prompted the party’s executive to switch to mail-in ballots and extend the voting period. Then the party said members who preferred not to mail the ballots could drop them off at riding offices, sparking criticism that the move would create opportunities for ballot tampering.
Hundreds of volunteers – some who support Mr. Kenney and some who don’t – have helped verify the eligibility of each voter, the party’s chief returning officer, Rick Orman, said Tuesday. The UCP also hired Deloitte as an independent adviser and impartial observer to fend off accusations of skullduggery, and livestreamed the ballot verification process.
“We’ve taken extraordinary steps to ensure the security and integrity of this vote,” Cynthia Moore, the UCP’s president, said in a statement.
The party on Tuesday would reveal neither how many voting packages it received by the May 11 deadline, nor how many of those packages it deemed eligible through the membership verification process. Eligible ballots, which are separated from identifying information before being opened, will be counted Wednesday. The UCP expects to release results between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. MT.
About 59,000 people in Alberta have UCP memberships, making it difficult to survey eligible voters. Janet Brown, an Alberta pollster, said there’s not enough solid information available to forecast the outcome.
“What I’m trying to advise my clients on is to be prepared for the multiple scenarios that could unfold,” she said.
Even if a pollster felt confident predicting whether Mr. Kenney will secure at least 50 per cent of the vote, the usefulness of that information is limited.
“That’s just knowledge you need to know to make a bet in a bar,” Ms. Brown said. “That doesn’t tell you what Alberta’s political future looks like.”
The UCP caucus is scheduled to meet Thursday, though Mr. Kenney’s opponents in caucus do not believe he will have the moral authority or political capital among MLAs to hang on to power if his victory is narrow.
Still, Mr. Kenney said he’s confident he’ll win – and argued that unhappiness at such a result does not mean that the UCP will splinter back into the separate factions from which it was born. Alberta has always had voters who veer toward smaller parties on the hard-right of the political spectrum, he said, and it always will.
“When I led the unity merger between the two parties, I was clear that we weren’t going to eliminate that,” he said.
“Sometimes organizing conservatives can be like herding cats. There will always be some in Alberta who are more comfortable in a pop-up tent than in a big tent. I just priced that in as part of our part of our political culture.”
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