Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Jason Kenney is staring ahead at a difficult year, to put it mildly, that could derail his political career after less than a term in office as Alberta Premier.
There has been discontent within his party for much of the past year, including open challenges from his United Conservative Party MLAs. Mr. Kenney has repeatedly tried to brush aside such discord by insisting it is little more than healthy debate. He successfully quelled an uprising last year by agreeing to an early leadership review, now scheduled for April, that may have simply put off an inevitable collision with his opponents. And now he has the added distraction of former leadership rival Brian Jean winning the nomination to run for the party in a byelection after making Mr. Kenney’s exit his top priority.
One question hanging over the leadership review is what threshold of support Mr. Kenney would need to hang on. Officially, party rules say a leader just needs to earn 50-per-cent support to remain in the position, but the reality is that Mr. Kenney will need far more robust support than that.
The Premier hasn’t publicly said what he will consider a passing grade, but a senior government source told columnist Kelly Cryderman that Mr. Kenney sees 65 per cent as the minimum support he would need to hang on. The Globe agreed not to name the source because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
It would have been difficult to imagine Mr. Kenney scoring so low just a few years ago, when he took over the newly merged UCP after returning to Alberta as heir apparent of the conservative movement. But even securing two-thirds support from his party seems like tall order, and that may not even be enough to save him.
In comparison, Ralph Klein’s political career ended after he received 55-per-cent support in a leadership review in 2006.
Premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford both did much better in their respective leadership reviews in 2009 and 2013, respectively, but for them even 77 per cent was not enough to hold off the internal discontent. In Ms. Redford’s case, she was gone within four months.
For Mr. Kenney, COVID-19 has posed an intractable problem as he has attempted to navigate an unprecedented health crisis while simultaneously trying to satisfy skeptics within his party and caucus who have vocally opposed things like restrictions or vaccine passports, as well as others who feel the Premier failed to do enough to curb the virus’s spread.
The result has been historic-low approval ratings that seem to get worse with the release of every public opinion survey.
But that also presents a longer-term problem for the party. Whoever is leader in a few short months, whether it’s Mr. Kenney or someone else, will need to confront two seemingly irreconcilable world views – Alberta is either doing too much or not enough to respond to COVID-19.
Mr. Jean, the former leader of the Wildrose Party who lost to Mr. Kenney in the 2017 race to lead the UCP – and who is now the apparent front-runner if the UCP is suddenly in need of a new leader – has criticized the Premier’s pandemic response but hasn’t said a lot about what he would do differently.
Mr. Jean has opposed Alberta’s vaccine passport system and, writing in the Edmonton Journal last year, accused the government of “moving of the goal posts” in its response to the pandemic. He has said Mr. Kenney bungled the COVID-19 file and has called for health officials to release more data and be more accountable to the legislature, though he hasn’t weighed in on what, for example, the province should be doing in response to the Omicron wave.
Which is all to say that even if Mr. Kenney is forced out, the problems that have helped sink his popularity will still be with us, and it’s not clear that a new leader would have an easier time addressing those tensions.
That dynamic has likely made 2021 one of the worst years of Mr. Kenney’s political career. But as Kelly writes in her column, the political drama of last year – to say nothing of the pandemic – may pale in comparison to what awaits the province in 2022.
This is the weekly Western Canada newsletter written by B.C. Editor Wendy Cox and Alberta Bureau Chief James Keller. If you’re reading this on the web, or it was forwarded to you from someone else, you can sign up for it and all Globe newsletters here.