Good morning. It’s James Keller in Calgary.
The place Jason Kenney finds himself would have been unimaginable five years ago, when he took over the newly formed United Conservative Party.
Mr. Kenney had returned to Alberta after a long career as an MP and cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s government. He cast himself as something of a saviour of Alberta’s conservative movement, which had become split between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party. The mission: unite the province’s political right, defeat the New Democrats and return the province to its rightful role as the country’s conservative heartland.
The first steps in that plan seemed to unfold smoothly. The merger of the two parties into the UCP was a success in 2017, and Mr. Kenney won the leadership later that year. The UCP handily defeated the New Democrats under Rachel Notley two years later and Mr. Kenney took power with an aggressive agenda to undo four years of NDP policies.
But then, COVID-19 hit. The pandemic not only hammered the province’s already frail economy, causing a dual shock that also sent oil prices into the negative, but it revealed deep divisions within the province and the UCP. Much of that internal warfare centred around restrictive public health measures. A growing list of MLAs spoke out publicly against the Premier and his approach to the pandemic, and two MLAs were kicked out of caucus.
At the same time, constituency associations were also agitating for a leadership review on an earlier timeline than one already expected this fall. The compromise was a spring review, which has been happening through a mail-in vote with the results expected to be made public on Wednesday.
The Globe’s Emma Graney talked to Mr. Kenney this week and the Premier seemed upbeat about the review and his chances. He has suggested that he has the support of the majority of members, while he has also set the bar for success far lower than other politicians, insisting he can stay on with any result over 50 per cent.
In his interview with The Globe, he said that “obviously” he would prefer a better result than a bare majority, but he suggested there were “unique factors” while noting that the leadership review has attracted a wave of new members who have never belonged to the UCP, Progressive Conservatives, or Wildrose before.
The process itself is also under scrutiny and there’s a risk that, whatever the result, some members just won’t believe it.
The review was originally to happen with an in-person vote in Red Deer last month, but the party says it had to switch to a mail-in ballot because there were too many people registered to attend.
Hundreds of volunteers 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 skulduggery, and livestreamed the ballot-verification process online.
Win or lose, the results will be a pivitol moment for the UCP, which, as Carrie Tait wrote in the weekend Globe, could find itself in an existential crisis.
If Mr. Kenney loses, the party will go through a potentially fraught leadership race that could focus on the same issues that have split the party and driven opposition to Mr. Kenney. It’s not clear how a new leader will be able to bridge two sides of the UCP that appear to be drifting further apart.
Even if Mr. Kenney wins, his problems won’t go away. He would have to figure out what to do with the dozen or so MLAs who have publicly opposed him, including several who have called for him to resign. The premier has suggested he would expect them to respect the result if he wins – and fall into line. As well, those dissident MLAs will have to decide if they want to stay with Mr. Kenney, continue pushing for him to leave, or walk away from the party themselves.
And all of this has to happen while the province prepares for an election in about a year that now seems more up in the air. Which is all to say that whatever happens on Wednesday will almost certainly not be the end of the current discord within Alberta’s political right, but rather the beginning of a messy process, which no one is certain how it will end.
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.