It’s the kind of month a jobs-and-economy Alberta Premier loves to have. Global oil and natural gas demand is high. Amazon announced it would establish a new hub in Calgary, bringing new tech jobs to the province’s biggest city. A fiscal update at the end of the month is likely to tell of unexpected billions rolling into government coffers. After a series of bleak years, Alberta is in recovery mode.
However, as much as Jason Kenney has tried to bring the focus back to his province’s improving finances, it has been overshadowed his low standing in recent polls, and his party’s internal turmoil. More than 1,000 United Conservative Party members will gather this weekend for an in-person annual meeting at the Grey Eagle Resort and Casino on the Tsuut’ina Nation, just outside Calgary. It will be far from a celebratory affair.
Mr. Kenney’s leadership isn’t being put to a vote this weekend, but his rocky year will be the subtext to policy debates and every hospitality suite conversation.
“After many no-good months, the Premier is having a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week,” former UCP MLA Todd Loewen, who now sits as an independent, said in the legislature on Thursday. (Mr. Loewen and Drew Barnes, MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat, were ejected from the caucus in May for their public criticism of the Premier.)
On Monday, just minutes before the Premier appeared with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for an announcement on an agreement for $10-a-day child-care funding, a group of 22 UCP constituency associations held a news conference to say they had reached the party-mandated threshold to ask for a leadership review early in the new year. Since then, the week has been filled with embarrassing allegations of government staff and third-party players working behind the scenes to ensure party members sympathetic to the Premier are in attendance at the annual meeting this weekend.
The first to raise questions was an MLA who previously had been trusted enough to be offered an associate minister position in the July cabinet shuffle. In a letter to the Premier he read in caucus, Airdrie-Cochrane MLA Peter Guthrie, who turned down the junior cabinet post, raised concerns about the quiet offers from political action committees or political staff to pay the convention fees up to $350 a person for members sympathetic to the Premier to attend the meeting.
“They are doing this to assist you in retaining the UCP provincial board with the intent of controlling the [leadership] review process,” Mr. Guthrie said in a statement that has been widely leaked. “This may not be illegal but it is certainly unethical.”
Discontent from Mr. Kenney’s backbench has been brewing for months. MLAs such as Mr. Guthrie have formed a private members’ caucus to be more strategic about presenting issues to their own government. More than 20 MLAs met for the first time on Wednesday night.
But the hurried backroom activity that Mr. Guthrie spoke to suggests the Premier, a former federal cabinet minister in the Harper government, still has political fire in his belly. His office said this week that legislature staffers are often involved in party politics, but must do so in their off hours. And Mr. Kenney told reporters this week that third-party political organizations are free within the law to be involved in politics, and “delegate registration fees are not considered a contribution.”
With the worst of a fourth wave of COVID-19 behind the province, Mr. Kenney is pointing to the good news story of an improving economy. The number of UCP MLAs and party members who have spoken out publicly against the Premier (including former cabinet minister Leela Aheer) might have pushed a less-steadfast, and less-combative, political leader out of office months ago.
“It’s easy to paint things negatively,” said Cynthia Moore, the incoming party president, and chair of the annual meeting, in response to a question about party disunity.
“The state of our party is much stronger than some would like you to believe,” Ms. Moore said in an interview, noting she had “UCP United” buttons printed up for the weekend meeting.
“Our focus is going to be on making sure we concentrate on preparing all the constituencies for the next election.”
But at the moment, the United Conservative Party – and Premier – are not favoured among the broader contingent of Albertans, either. His government’s disastrous handling of the fourth wave of COVID-19 still looms large with many voters, and he’s viewed by many as being overly focused on winning political battles rather than good governance.
Mr. Kenney is sitting low in every poll in recent months, and the UCP have been out-fundraised by the Opposition party led by former premier Rachel Notley this year. So far, her NDP has raised $4-million, the governing party $2.6-million.
Some UCP members believe they will lose an early 2023 election with Mr. Kenney at the helm. He has privately been telling caucus members he will leave if he’s harming the party he helped to create. “I just encourage all of my colleagues to focus on the peoples’ business, on the priorities of Albertans, not on internal politics,” Mr. Kenney told reporters this week.
But since Mr. Guthrie presented his letter to the Premier on Monday, there has been other embarrassing leaks along similar lines. Don Braid, the long-time Calgary Herald political columnist, detailed how an unnamed executive was asked to “round up” colleagues to shore up support for the Premier at the annual meeting – and how that executive wanted to leverage that show of support “into further, meaningful dialogues with his cabinet.”
Ms. Moore was acclaimed as president in October, but other executive board positions are up for votes. “The Premier’s transparent attempt to use corporate money in his own bid to hold onto power by biasing the election of the UCP board that will oversee his leadership review is not going to win any hearts or minds,” said Mr. Loewen in the legislature.
Both Mr. Loewen and Opposition NDP critic Thomas Dang wrote letters to Alberta’s chief electoral officer to question the legality of such moves. But from early indications, the matter could eventually be settled in favour of those working for the Premier.
Elections Alberta doesn’t disclose whether it’s conducting any investigations, but it released a bulletin Friday which said Alberta’s election finances legislation prohibits individuals from making contributions with money that is not their own. But that only applies “if there is a contribution component to a registration fee for a registered party event.”
Dave Prisco, director of communications for the party, said the annual general meeting is being operated on a cost-recovery basis. “Accordingly, the registration fees are not contributions,” he wrote. “No tax receipt is issued for AGM registration fees.”
There is good reason why supporters of the Premier would want a strong showing this weekend. Anger at Mr. Kenney also stems from widespread belief that the man who won control of the premier’s chair, with help from a “grassroots guarantee” that brought the most rural and conservative parts of the province into his free-enterprise political coalition, has created a centralized, top-down office.
It is part of the reason that Brian Jean, the former leader of the Wildrose and Mr. Kenney’s forever political rival, has decided to throw his hat in the ring once again. Mr. Jean is running for the UCP nomination in Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche with the intention of some day seeking the leadership.
In September, the Premier was forced to agree to an earlier-than-planned leadership review to stave off a non-binding vote of non-confidence against him that had been introduced in a caucus meeting. The leadership review had been scheduled for the fall of 2022 but was moved up to April.
But on Monday, 22 constituency associations – the required one-quarter of the party organizations – announced they had hit the required threshold by all passing an identical motion pressing for an early leadership review, prior to March 1. The motion calls for a special general meeting and leadership review, where members would be able to vote remotely.
Some constituency associations behind the move are active opponents of Mr. Kenney. Some say they simply want the leadership issue out of the way – no matter the outcome – so rebuilding party support can begin well ahead of an election now just 18 months away.
That request has now been forwarded to the party board, presumably to be dealt with by the new president, Ms. Moore, and her executive. At the same time, the annual meeting will also include discussion of a motion to increase the number of constituency associations that must request a special general meetings, with leadership reviews, to one-third (from the current one-quarter). The rationale: “One quarter of CA’s shouldn’t be able to overthrow a leader. The bar is set too low and opens the party up to troublemaking by a small minority of CA boards.”
But Samantha Steinke, a constituency association president who has been a key organizer against Mr. Kenney, said the bar is already high enough. She said the push to hold a leadership review before March 1 should proceed, no matter the outcome of the annual meeting.
“It took a long time to get to that first threshold,” she said. “It’s not as easy as they’re claiming.”
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