Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has been facing criticism for his handling of the COVID-19 pandemic from both sides of the political spectrum.
On the left, the Opposition New Democrats have repeatedly condemned the United Conservative Party’s response as weak, slow, and inadequate to deal with the scale of the pandemic and its impact on Albertans and the health-care system.
But Mr. Kenney has also faced a larger political problem within his own party, as business shutdowns and other restrictions have fuelled disdain from the party’s supporters and public criticism from within his own caucus. Last month, 15 UCP MLAs – more than a quarter of the entire caucus – signed a letter objecting to the public health measures even as the province headed into a record-setting third wave.
The tension boiled over this week in spectacular fashion. MLA Todd Loewen quit his position as caucus chair and issued a public letter early Thursday morning calling for Mr. Kenney to resign. Another, David Hanson, appeared to endorse the letter in a Facebook post.
The letter prompted a long caucus meeting in which MLAs were asked to vote on whether to eject Mr. Loewen and MLA Drew Barnes, whose vocal criticisms of public health measures had already become a thorn in the Premier’s side. In the end, the two were removed from caucus.
Mr. Kenney had previously brushed off such criticism, particularly from Mr. Barnes, insisting that he welcomed the debate and had no problem with MLAs airing their concerns in public. A day after the vote, the Premier attempted to distance himself from the vote while defending the ultimate decision.
“Ultimately what this says is we have to be a team. Let’s be professional,” he told Edmonton radio station CHED.
“We can’t allow personal agendas to distract the team, or for that matter the government, from the business of governing, particularly in a time of [COVID-19] crisis like this.’'
Mr. Loewen and Mr. Barnes said the UCP is no longer a grassroots-driven movement but a top-down, one-man show that sidelines and ignores backbench members and the concerns of the people they represent.
They both plan to remain in the legislature as independents.
The Globe’s Kelly Cryderman writes that this is the greatest political challenge to Mr. Kenney’s leadership – and potentially his time as Premier – that he has faced since he was elected two years ago.
“Here’s the bad news. The Premier is facing low, low polling numbers amongst the general public, which gives less power to face any caucus dissent head-on. Social media is not real life but it was difficult to find posts in support of the Premier after the caucus vote.”
The political drama is playing out as the province battles a third wave of COVID-19 that is setting records for infections and straining hospitals. Alberta has the highest rates of COVID-19 infection in North America and among the highest in the world. Mr. Kenney announced new restrictions almost two weeks ago and infections appear to be levelling off, but there remains significant concern about ICU admissions, which are expected to continue increasing for at least a couple of weeks.
I joined The Globe’s new daily podcast, The Decibel, in its inaugural week to talk with host Tamara Khandaker about the COVID-19 situation in Alberta, how the province got here, and how the pandemic is affecting Mr. Kenney’s political fortunes. You can listen to that episode on the Globe’s website and, perhaps more importantly, subscribe to The Decibel wherever you listen to podcasts.
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.