It wouldn’t seem likely that a Sasquatch movie for children could have anything to do with Alberta’s new legislation on voter recall and referendums.
But yet, everything in Alberta politics this week was interconnected – all relating back to Jason Kenney’s leadership through the pandemic, and his continuing push to quell the dissatisfaction on the political right.
To set the stage: The Alberta Premier is in a tough spot politically. He governs a province deeply divided on big issues, ranging from how strict pandemic public health restrictions should be, to how to adapt the oil-focused economy to a rapidly shifting global investment climate.
On a provincewide basis, Mr. Kenney’s popularity numbers are low and Rachel Notley’s NDP could be competitive if an election were held today. Within his own United Conservative Party, the top brass have announced that a leadership review – which could have been a mechanism to formalize unrest within the ranks – has been pushed off to 2022, just months before the next provincial election is scheduled.
But that doesn’t mean unhappiness amongst his MLAs, the party’s constituency associations and party supporters has disappeared. Bereft of in-person interactions with members, the Premier and party officials continue to hold a series of virtual meetings to connect with the “grassroots.”
But the messaging to party members went beyond Zooming this week. First and foremost, Mr. Kenney made a point of amplifying the message of the government-funded war room, the Canadian Energy Centre (CEC), which is campaigning against a Netflix film called Bigfoot Family.
The movie follows the mythical creature and his family as they take on an evil oil executive who attacks environmental protesters as he exploits the resources of a fictional place named Rocky Valley, Alaska. The war room says the movie vilifies the North American oil and gas industry.
Mr. Kenney has been criticized by the NDP for echoing the war room’s take on a children’s movie – saying it sends exactly the wrong, petulant message at a time when his government has started talking seriously about economic diversification and improving Alberta’s reputation as it relates to ESG measures.
Even senior members of his own government appear conflicted in their assessment of the war room’s performance. While Alberta Energy Minister Sonya Savage is a long-time ally of CEC head Tom Olsen, and is certainly is no fan of the Netflix movie, she also told a legislative budget estimates meeting that “not everybody is going to agree with every single tactic of the Canadian Energy Centre. I don’t either.”
Whatever your view on the war room, many Albertans are still frustrated that fossil fuel production is often depicted as a standalone baddie, while massive consumption of the stuff continues without nearly the same level of environmental scrutiny. Critics also seem to forget that Mr. Kenney and the UCP won a massive majority in the 2019 election with a key campaign pledge being to fight back against what they characterize as misinformation about the province’s energy sector.
Mr. Kenney could have said next to nothing on the war room’s position this week. But the party machinery seems to believe its supporters will back him on the Bigfoot issue. This week they sent out a fundraising e-mail based on Mr. Kenney’s attack on the movie, and lambasting “the chattering class and the NDP.”
“Unlike the NDP, we’re not embarrassed to defend an industry in Alberta that creates the most jobs, and produces the most revenues for government,” the e-mail said.
This is outreach to make sure the party is still connecting with key supporters and donors. It’s also why his government this week introduced democratic reform legislation, Bill 51 and 52. They would enact the ability to recall MLAs, municipal officials and school board trustees between elections, and create a mechanism for amending or creating new laws through citizen referendum.
Importantly, the bills present such high standards – for instance, requiring the signatures of 40 per cent of eligible voters in a short two-month span to even prompt a recall vote for a MLA – that it’s doubtful any politician is likely to face a serious challenge as a result. Change as a result of this legislation is more a theoretical possibility than something likely to be put into practice.
But these type of direct-democracy initiatives are popular with many UCP supporters – and are, again, a clear attempt to reconnect with a base.
It all feels like a distraction from the political reality that Mr. Kenney is trying to balance a robust vaccine program and pandemic response with the views of many of his more ardent members, who believe that the deadliness and other health effects of COVID-19 have been overstated, and that health restrictions go too far.
In southern Alberta, Brian Hildebrand resigned from his board position on the UCP Taber-Warner Constituency Association in February, and then the party this month. In a letter to the party, he expressed dismay that the decision to hold a leadership review as late as October, 2022, saying it “has every appearance of protecting leadership from a growing dissent among party members until there is not enough time to hold a leadership race before the next election.”
Mr. Kenney’s complicated political dilemma will continue as Alberta teeters on the edge a third wave of the pandemic. Variant cases of COVID-19 are increasing, and what had been a declining number of total new coronavirus cases is now inching up. How confident his government feels in its own skin will be tested again next week, when cabinet is likely to decide whether to loosen COVID-19 restrictions – or keep in place public health measures that many members of the UCP base despise.
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