Most people would conclude that 2021 was an awful year for Jason Kenney. But it might not hold a candle to the drama coming in early 2022.
The Premier is girding himself for a United Conservative Party leadership review in three months. His office considers about 65 per cent as a tenable minimum level of support in the review vote, according to a senior government source. The Globe and Mail is not naming the source because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the issue.
Even with signs of an improving economy, two-thirds of party members voting in his favour is probably the most optimistic outcome Mr. Kenney could hope for.
His low standing in Alberta polls doesn’t need repeating and his most immediate concern are his many rivals within his own party. To pass a leadership review, a majority of UCP members in attendance at a special general meeting in Red Deer on April 9 have to say yes to the question, “Do you approve of the current leader?” According to party rules, a show of support from less than 50 per cent of the total valid votes cast automatically triggers a leadership race.
But in Alberta political history, conservative leaders have needed more than a simple majority. Former premier Ralph Klein’s political career was over when he received 55-per-cent support in a leadership review 15 years ago. His staff cried in the hallway of the Calgary convention centre when the results came out.
Premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford both got a solid 77-per-cent support (each received exactly the same percentage, in separate votes) at similar leadership reviews, in 2009 and 2013, respectively. They, too, faced dissent from within their parties and the better-than-many-expected results boosted their sagging fortunes, temporarily. But it didn’t hold off the internal discontent for long.
In the here and now, no one expects Mr. Kenney to do as well in the leadership review as Mr. Stelmach and Ms. Redford did. Mr. Kenney’s backers would say it’s reflective of the times: He has had to govern through the COVID-19 crisis, with a new party and a green caucus that hasn’t been able to bond properly because of a lack of in-person gatherings. Some argue that, given those circumstances, anything greater than 50-per-cent support should suffice.
But other UCP members believe they’re sure to lose to the NDP in the next election if the unpopular Mr. Kenney is still in charge, and no amount of improvement to Alberta’s economy will change that.
Even before the leadership review, the next three months will play out like a fast-paced political obstacle course. Besides the Omicron wave, there will be a fraught new session of the legislature come February, with a Throne Speech and then a budget by the end of that month. In presenting a budget that could nearly eliminate the provincial deficit, the UCP will be under immense pressure to make sure the stronger economic numbers -- based on higher oil demand -- aren’t simply a boost to government and energy companies’ financials. An improving economy must translate into jobs and a wee bit of optimism.
All the while, the Premier’s office will be distracted by a byelection in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche that could bring Mr. Kenney’s long-time political rival Brian Jean into the UCP caucus. Mr. Jean has won the UCP nomination for the race, and like no other party member he is directly and openly gunning for the Premier’s job. If Mr. Jean manages to become a governing party MLA -- if he is not somehow disqualified as a UCP candidate between now and byelection voting day for his outspokenness -- he will be tolerated alongside other open dissenters in caucus.
No date has been set yet, but the byelection must be called by mid-February. The race also includes the NDP’s Ariana Mancini, and Paul Hinman, the long-time Alberta politician who’s now leader of the separatist Wildrose Independence Party. In a sign of the times, all three are positioning themselves as the strongest anti-Kenney candidate.
The state of Omicron spread, the fragile health care system, the improving economy and the environment are all issues more important than one politician’s leadership review. But Mr. Kenney’s ability to hold onto power, or not, will determine a lot of Alberta’s political future: whether that’s a UCP leadership race this year or fiercely fought general election with Mr. Kenney still leading his party 15 months from now.
Already, the Premier has stuck around when mistakes and criticism might have made other political leaders leave public life. And he might be an unpopular pandemic premier, but he’s been adept at getting out the vote, and surrounding himself with people who have the same political skills. No doubt, there will be close scrutiny of whether third parties are paying the fees for members to attend the leadership review, who actually votes, and who is loading the charter buses to go to Red Deer.
Never mind Mr. Kenney moving back to Alberta from Ottawa, combining two conservative parties and winning the leadership years ago. Getting party members who support him to show up in April, 2022, is the challenge of his career.
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