Premier Jason Kenney’s arch foe is now a member of the Alberta legislature and expects to sit at the United Conservative caucus table despite his public displeasure with the party’s leader.
“I won a [party] nomination fair and square, a competitive nomination, a pretty tough nomination,” Brian Jean said in the legislature’s rotunda Thursday after being sworn in as the member for Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche.
“I ran in the election under the UCP banner and I won an overwhelming majority. And I believe the people of Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche want me to sit as a UCP MLA and work on the mandate that I gave (them).”
That mandate is to fight to have Kenney deposed as party leader based on Jean’s stated belief that Kenney’s policy failures, along with tone-deaf, top-down management, are alienating grassroots supporters and inviting an Opposition NDP win in the 2023 provincial election.
Jean said he has been given an office and put on the caucus mailing list.
Asked what Jean’s status will be, caucus chairman Nathan Neudorf responded in a statement: “MLA Brian Jean is a member of the United Conservative caucus. He was sworn in today by our whip and will be at our next caucus meeting.
The pattern of who stays and who goes has been confusing and contradictory.
Almost a year ago, Todd Loewen was voted out of caucus after openly calling for Kenney to quit. He accused the premier of hollowing out the party by failing to listen to the grassroots. Another UCP member, Drew Barnes, criticized multiple Kenney policies and was also shown the door. Both now sit as Independents.
Others have openly challenged Kenney and his policies, including Leela Aheer and deputy speaker Angela Pitt.
Two weeks ago, Jason Stephan and Peter Guthrie publicly urged Kenney to resign to allow for a party leadership race. All have remained in caucus, although Kenney removed Aheer from cabinet last July.
Kenney and Jean have their own tangled and bruising history.
The two co-founded the UCP in 2017 by merging Jean’s Wildrose Party with Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives. Jean lost to Kenney in an inaugural leadership race bedevilled by accusations of collusion and underhanded activities. The race remains the focus of an RCMP investigation into possible voter fraud.
Kenney tweeted a congratulatory note to Jean after his by-election win three weeks ago but has otherwise remained silent.
The premier was absent from the house soon after when Jean was introduced as a guest of the legislature and received applause from all sides.
“I haven’t spoken to the premier directly in four years,” Jean said Thursday.
He said he will continue to try to round up party members to vote against Kenney in a leadership review. It begins Saturday with a virtual speech by Kenney to members followed by a distribution of mail-in ballots.
They are to be mailed back and results announced May 18. Kenney needs majority support or a leadership race must be called.
The vote itself has been fraught with controversy.
It was supposed to be in person in Red Deer on Saturday. Two weeks ago, the UCP board changed it to a provincewide mail-in vote. The board said widespread interest – with 15,000 party members expected to cast a ballot – made the one-day in-person option impossible.
Kenney opponents say they suspect the change came at the behest of his camp because Kenney didn’t have numbers on his side and needed to broaden the vote to more than those willing or able to travel to Red Deer.
The premier has been facing lagging popularity numbers and confrontations with party factions, constituency presidents and caucus members over his leadership and COVID-19 policies.
Kenney, in turn, has said the leadership review is a party proxy hijacking and his opponents are “lunatics” who espouse hate and racial and religious bigotry.
Jean, who said Kenney couldn’t win a fair vote, has concerns the voter registration rolls aren’t on the up and up.
“I’ve received a lot of lists for memberships over the years. I’ve never had them sorted by first name [along] with paper copies and the rest mixed up,” he said.
“This is not a list that can be used.”
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