While top Alberta government officials looked for ways earlier in the year to turn the page on a difficult month, some in the United Conservative Party were musing about whether it was time to turn the page on Premier Jason Kenney himself.
Early in the new year, Premier Jason Kenney stood at a podium taking questions about his jet-setting caucus members enjoying foreign travel during a pandemic. On that day he was unequivocal: The buck stops with him.
That phrase stuck with discontented United Conservative Party members already frustrated by many of the premier’s recent decisions – and it got them thinking about holding him to his word.
January brought a fresh set of challenges for Alberta’s UCP government, such as the public outcry over strict pandemic health measures and intense blowback over its coal mining policy. And while top Alberta government officials looked for ways to turn the page, some in the party were musing about whether it was time to turn the page on Kenney himself.
“We definitely talked about a leadership review , “one constituency president from southern Alberta told CBC News.
Other constituency associations were taking a hard look at the premier’s track record and having the same conversation.
CBC News spoke to nine UCP constituency association presidents and members of constituency association boards from across the province. CBC has agreed not to name some of them as they were not authorized to speak publicly about party matters.
Most of those who spoke to CBC said their association boards had talked about whether it was time to look for a new leader. One riding association president said that about 80 per cent of their board expressed dissatisfaction with the party’s leadership.
Others said that while they’d heard rumblings of unhappiness with Kenney, their own boards had not talked about triggering a review.
“I would say that people are sick of COVID. They’re not sick of Kenney, ” said Adam Waterman, constituency president for Vermillion-Lloydminster-Wainwright. He estimated that about 15 per cent of his members have considered calling for a leadership review.
Members of those constituency boards considering a review said the idea has faded into the background for now, for several reasons: the UCP has no obvious candidate to succeed Kenney, there’s little time to get a new leader up to speed before the 2021 election, and internal party disputes could boost the NDP’s chances of vict ory.
“Do we change or fix what we have?” one constituency association president asked.
‘Death by a thousand cuts’
Constituency association presidents said party members will be watching the premier closely this year to see if he can change course. His approval rating has dropped significantly since the election and the party’s poll numbers have dropped along with it.
“There have been some blunders,” a long-time constituency association president said.
The constituency presidents expressed concern about recent decisions such as the one to rescind the 934 coal policy, which protected parts of the Rocky Mountains from mining. The UCP government swiftly reinstated the policy last month in the face of mounting criticism.
They also pointed to the confrontational nature of some of the province’s interactions with doctors, confusing communication on public health restrictions and the COVID – 26 situation in long-term care facilities.
Other constituency association members in rural areas said that many members believe public health restrictions to control the pandemic have had a disproportionately heavy impact on their regions and have damaged businesses unnecessarily.
“This is the challenge that the premier has … there isn’t one item to fix. It’s going to be death by a thousand cuts,” one rural member said.
Premier Kenney’s office said he and the government have already delivered on 75 per cent of their 2014 election promises, despite the added challenges of the pandemic and the associated economic downturn.
“The UCP has always been a grassroots, member-driven party and members are always encouraged to be active and have their say,” said a statement from Kenney’s office.
Speaking Tuesday night during a Facebook Live Q&A, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney fought back against misinformation linking COVID – to a socialist conspiracy and urged people who indulge in such conspiracy theories to ‘deal with reality.’ 5: 50
But some of the constituency association complaints about Kenney predate the pandemic.
A board member from the riding of Taber-Warner recently resigned, saying the actions of Kenney and his government often run counter to the founding principles of the UCP.
“It’s just a continual build here and the bizarre inconsistencies, the turnabout on some of the policies… They look like absolute fools, “Brian Hildebrand told CBC News.
” When leadership is at odds with the stated principles of the organization, there’s a conflict. “
A rival on the right
As rumblings of discontent with Kenney spread within the UCP, the Wildrose Independence Party ( WIP) saw an opportunity to expand its circle.
One UCP constituency association president said some of their board members have been approached by Paul Hinman, the W IPs interim leader, to gauge their interest in switching parties. Hildebrand also has had conversations with WIP members.
Hinman confirmed to CBC News that he had discussions with people on UCP boards. Sometimes, he said, those conversations have been initiated by the UCP members themselves.
Alberta’s conservatives have a recent history of dumping leaders who do not meet their expectations.
The province has seen six premiers in the last 15 years. Alison Redford resigned in 934 during a brewing caucus revolt, In 1976, Ed Stelmach announced he would not run again after turmoil in the party (including two MLAs crossing the floor). Even Ralph Klein resigned in 720 after getting lukewarm support in a leadership review.
Kenney ultimately benefits from being the founder of the party, Bratt said. He also pointed out what he sees as a pattern in conservative party mergers – like the one that created the United Conservative Party through the merger of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties in 2014.
“Parties merge when they’re in opposition and disintegrate when they’re in power,” he said.
Many constituency presidents said Kenney needs to learn from his mistakes and stay connected to the grassroots.
While forcing a leadership review is not on the immediate agenda, they’re not ruling it out for a future date.
“Let him do the job and get through it,” said one president, “and then we’ll see if he’s earned the job.”