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Jason Kenney has a growing chorus of 'armchair quarterbacks' — where are they coming from?

This week, the co-founder of the United Conservative Party had some disparaging words for Alberta's premier, arguing the government's combative approach was failing when it came to several important issues.

Guests dive into criticism from Brian Jean and others on the latest episode of West of Centre

Former Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean, left, and Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announced a unity deal to form the United Conservative Party in 2017. This week, Jean wrote an open letter to the premier urging changes in style and approach. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This week, the co-founder of the United Conservative Party had some disparaging words for Alberta's premier, arguing the government's combative approach was failing when it came to several important issues.

"Premier, you should be able to count on the help of Albertans on all these issues, since we all face them together," Brian Jean wrote in a column published by Postmedia on Wednesday.

"But that is not happening, and the biggest reason is the attitude and management style of the government you lead."

It's the latest piece of criticism — and perhaps the most stinging — from a prominent conservative voice in the province surrounding the premier's handling of multiple simultaneous crises.

Premier Jason Kenney, for his part, said Wednesday he had not read the column, adding that it's easy to sit on the sidelines and be an "armchair quarterback."

But how might the premier further respond, especially with growing criticism on his right flank?

Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary, told Kathleen Petty on CBC's West of Centre podcast that he didn't believe the letter was directed to the premier himself.

"I think we're still a ways away from a caucus revolt. But there's clearly unhappy caucus people, and they're using Brian Jean as their voice," Bratt said. "So I thought it was a valuable column. But it was not directed to Jason Kenney."

  • Listen to this week's full episode of West of Centre here:

Culture of politics in Alberta

In the column, Jean goes on to give Kenney and his government some advice, suggesting the premier "fire [himself]" as intergovernmental affairs minister and crack down on rhetoric online from press secretaries and political staffers.

"Albertans want the premier's and ministers' offices to be staffed by grown ups who can be trusted to maturely address the issues facing Albertans," Jean wrote. 

"You would be well-served if your ministers employed more policy advisors and fewer Twitter warriors."

Speaking Wednesday, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney said he hadn't read former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean's column, but said he wasn't surprised to hear that people were critical of a government that needs to take tough choices. (CBC News)

Jean also wrote that many government staffers lack "meaningful Alberta-wide networks," many of whom he suggested lack the experience to have real "skin in the game."

"If they haven't committed to making Alberta their permanent home, they might not be suited for the job," Jean wrote. 

"Albertans would be surprised by how many of this government's top staff and bureaucrats aren't from Alberta."

Kelly Cryderman, who covers politics for the Globe and Mail, told West of Centre that once in a while, the premier or someone close to him acts with a lack of institutional political knowledge.

"It's a superficial thing, but conservatives have brought it up to me many times," Cryderman said.

"The fact that they would move into the 'Sky Palace,' even temporarily, suggests they don't have an understanding of what the Sky Palace symbolized for a lot of conservatives, and that sense of PC entitlement. There's just little indications like that."

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's office told The Canadian Press in January that he was temporarily working out of a penthouse known infamously as the “Sky Palace” due to exterior renovations at the legislature. (Amber Bracken, The Canadian Press)

Cryderman said some have specifically highlighted disconnects they feel on subjects like the province's coal policy and on Alberta's Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped (AISH).

"I think that is coming out, whether Kenney had a good grasp of provincial politics in the province, and the diversity that exists, frankly, [even] among conservatives," Cryderman said.

An 'understanding of Alberta'

In his column, Bratt said Jean specifically raised the idea that the Kenney government may be out of touch with Albertans.

"You may recall when the NDP was in power, one of the big issues they got a lot of pushback on was Bill 6, the farm safety bill," Bratt said.

The contentious farm safety bill, known as the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, caused demonstrations throughout Alberta

"The view was, the NDP is a bunch of city folk, they have no understanding of rural Alberta. So there's this massive pushback," Bratt said. "UCP comes in, they sweep every rural riding across the province.

"And then you look at where their problems lie. Coal mining. Who has been most upset with coal mining? Unlike what Premier Kenney has said, where he said it's the city folks who are upset with coal mining, it's the people in rural Alberta."

WATCH | Why Alberta is looking to the Rockies for coal:

Alberta's new approach to coal

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Alberta has reshaped a decades-old balance in the Rockies and Foothills, rescinding its 1976 Coal Development Policy, opening the door to more open-pit mines in the mountains. 4:03

Bratt said issues like loss of doctors in rural Alberta and controversy surrounding the government's provincial parks policy speak to a lack of understanding when it comes to rural voters.

"So is there something about a caucus that is largely left out of government? Even though there are 39 rural MLAs, most of them aren't in cabinet," Bratt said. "Cabinet is dominated by Calgary. You've got staffers from Ottawa. Is there something here that Jean and others are starting to pick up on?

"If you're looking at where the caucus revolts are happening, it's from the rural base. Is there a disconnect from the government, and what they think is their base in rural Alberta?"

And then, Drew Barnes

Kenney also responded this week to UCP caucus member Drew Barnes, who called for the province to hold a referendum on independence should Ottawa not take Alberta's concerns about resources and a "fair deal" seriously.

The premier said that though MLAs have a "right to speak their mind," the UCP is committed to a strong Alberta within a united Canada.

Cryderman said Barnes feels the confidence to take a variety of positions that come contrary to that of the Kenney government.

"I think we have to ask, who has the most to lose? Definitely, Drew Barnes is very confident in what he says," she said. "I ask him about it, and he says, 'I'm just representing what my constituents say.'"

This week, UCP caucus member Drew Barnes called for Alberta to hold a referendum on independence as a message to Ottawa. (CBC)

Jared Wesley, a associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta, told West of Centre Barnes may not actually be championing the cause of separatism.

"It doesn't make a lot of policy sense, but I think it does, in their minds, makes sense politically," Wesley said. "It gets back to this idea of being caught in 1990s conservatism.

"Along with that came the response to the Quebec referendum, and folks in Alberta saying, 'Hey, wait a minute. Quebec actually got a lot out of pushing the country to the brink and threatening to separate. Maybe we should try that too.'"

Cryderman said there was a fundamental difference in belief in terms of what works for Alberta when it comes to dealing with Ottawa.

"Look at the NDP government in their early years when they [were] first elected, which tried and worked well in some aspects with the Trudeau government," she said. "The UCP view of that is that it was an abject failure, and you get more by being more cantankerous and being the squeaky wheel.

"There's debate within that party about how far you go."

Wesley said that all of this may be setting up a situation where Albertans are promised things from the provincial government through referendum that they may not be able to deliver.

"And then what? We've seen what hollow empty promises to a populist conservative right have done to other countries," Wesley said. "And it's not pretty."

  • Listen to the complete West of Centre podcast series right here.

With files from CBC's West of Centre and The Canadian Press.

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