Alberta’s political Doomsday Clock inched closer to midnight this week, with the possibility that man-made, internal conservative outrage could limit Jason Kenney’s time as Premier at its highest likelihood ever.
Long-simmering tensions within the governing United Conservative Party spilled into the open with MLA Todd Loewen’s Wednesday late-night letter imploring the Premier to resign. Mr. Kenney has long said he tolerates diverse points of view in his caucus. But after writing those words, it was untenable for Mr. Loewen to remain in a caucus led by Mr. Kenney. Drew Barnes, long the UCP’s agitator-in-chief, was somehow caught up in the action – even though the MLA who has leadership aspirations of his own and dabbled with Alberta separatism had never called for Mr. Kenney to resign, and hadn’t said anything particularly egregious this week.
Both men were kicked out of caucus late Thursday. That course of action was voted for by UCP MLAs after an hours-long, virtual emergency caucus meeting that focused in part on talking about stopping leaks to the media – even, surreally, as some of the highlights of the meeting were leaked and then reported on by the right-wing/anti-Kenney news site The Western Standard.
It was a spectacle you couldn’t look away from – and proof that politics takes a break for no health crisis.
The question now is whether booting two outspoken members is a full-blown leadership crisis averted, or simply delayed. Does the team now coalesce and focus on getting through the pandemic? Does standing firm with the likes of Mr. Barnes and Mr. Loewen discourage others from challenging an unpopular Premier in the midst of managing a health crisis, or does it simply push the dissent down for a few days or weeks before it rears its head again?
Mr. Kenney has some things going in favour of his leadership. There is hopefully now broader recognition in his caucus that the pandemic situation is dire and health restrictions are necessary. Alberta has a sky-high infection rate and emergency wards could be overwhelmed. Rural hospitals have had to temporarily close emergency departments as health care staff are off sick, isolating or taking care of children. It may be that the Premier is better able to rally more unity when it comes to a crucial push in defeating an ugly third wave.
There is also hope that after a terrible surge in hospitals over the coming weeks, things will start to get better. Vaccine supplies and uptake are moving. In the months ahead, the economy could improve. Mr. Kenney is even, somewhat optimistically, talking about bringing in international rodeo performers to a scaled-down Stampede this summer.
And on Friday, some MLAs decided to – or were encouraged to – say something positive about Mr. Kenney or speak about UCP unity going forward. MLA Ron Orr, who previously criticized the health restrictions, posted a message of support for the Premier on Facebook. Calgary Glenmore UCP MLA Whitney Issik said family and friends can’t find any agreement about how governments should respond to the pandemic, so it’s no surprise there are divides amongst government MLAs. Mr. Kenney, she said in an interview, is doing “the best job possible in the face of this, with our team.”
Here’s the bad news. The Premier is facing low, low polling numbers among the general public, which offers 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.
On Friday, he himself tried to distance himself from that caucus vote, saying during a CHED radio interview, “I did not reveal which way I was voting. I didn’t want to, you know, put my finger on the scale, but I did express my disappointment with some of the conduct.”
But the UCP MLAs who are voicing their concern are no longer making it about the health restrictions, they’re making it about Mr. Kenney himself. Mr. Loewen, who in the past expressed concern about the restrictions, didn’t even mention COVID-19 in his letter. He outlined other issues that have dogged the UCP – its coal policy, or its ham-handed negotiations with doctors – and messaging from Mr. Kenney’s government being “contradictory, confusing and needlessly inflammatory.” It’s unlikely caucus was as offended by the letter as the Premier’s office.
Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA David Hanson still sits in caucus. That’s a bit surprising, as while he didn’t go as far as calling for the Premier’s resignation, he did express public support for Mr. Loewen’s letter and concern about the UCP losing to the NDP in the next election if Mr. Kenney is still leader of the party.
“It’s time to take a stand. We fought very hard for unity, to unite the conservative parties here,” Mr. Hanson said in a interview. “I’d hate to see it go to waste.”
The opposition NDP is ahead in fundraising and in some polls. But an election is two years away and Alberta is a province where a premier is more likely to be ousted from within a conservative party than in a general election. There is still plenty of time for further internal battles. Everyone, including the Premier’s office, knows there are more deeply unhappy MLAs in the UCP caucus.
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