Kenney's close call: How the conservative grassroots put Alberta's premier on notice
UCP constituency associations have been talking about forcing a leadership review
Early in the new year, Alberta 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 10 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 2023 election, and internal party disputes could boost the NDP's chances of victory.
"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 1976 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-19 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 already have delivered on 75 per cent of their 2019 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.
Under a new UCP resolution passed at the party's most recent general meeting, a leadership review could happen sometime in 2021 or 2022. But the party hasn't said when that rule will come into effect, or whether it will be applied to this election cycle.
Constituency associations can trigger a special meeting for a leadership vote; if Kenney failed to hit 50 per cent support in such a vote, the party would launch a leadership election.
Right now, however, no constituency association appears to want to be the first to go public with the idea — in part because of the awkward timing of a leadership campaign in the middle of a public health crisis. All the UCP members CBC spoke to said they've decided to put the idea of a leadership review on hold for now, but many want to see significant changes from Kenney.
"We've got work to do, there's no doubt about it," an urban constituency president said. "The leader and MLAs need to make sure they're doing what they can to be more appealing."
Some associations have begun to pressure the party to pick a day for the next fixed date leadership review. While many have hit pause on the notion until then, some members are not content to wait — and are actively lobbying others to organize to force a review.
The premier appears to be getting the message.
Kenney has been holding frequent Zoom meetings lasting an hour or longer with regional, provincial and individual constituency boards since the new year. Even more calls are scheduled for the coming weeks.
One constituency president said that his fellow members used to see Kenney only once every few months. Another said the premier been more accessible in 2021 than ever before.
Several members said that, during those online conferences with constituency boards, the premier has taken heavy criticism while answering questions and acknowledging the mistakes of the past year.
"We are very blunt with him, sometimes crass," one said. "But Kenney needed to hear it."
Now, they're waiting to see what he does with the information they've given him.
Battles on both fronts
"He has a fight on his hands," said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
"How do you govern a province in the middle of a pandemic, in the middle of escalating budget deficits ... [while] protecting your own flank and trying to protect your own job from within?"
Rural constituency associations saw the most intense discussions about a leadership review, while many urban associations discussed it but didn't give it serious consideration, the presidents said.
Bratt said Kenney and the UCP need to keep 90 per cent of rural ridings onside in order to secure another majority government.
An urban board member said any leader would falter occasionally during a global crisis.
"It's always easier to make that decision sitting in your living room. It's not so easy when you're the one who has to pacify 4.5 million people."
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 WIP's interim leader, to gauge their interest in switching parties. Hildebrand also has had conversations with WIP members.
Hinman confirmed to CBC News that he's 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 don't meet their expectations.
The province has seen six premiers in the last 15 years. Alison Redford resigned in 2014 during a brewing caucus revolt, In 2011, Ed Stelmach announced he wouldn't run again after turmoil in the party (including two MLAs crossing the floor). Even Ralph Klein resigned in 2006 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 2017.
"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 isn't 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."
With files from Audrey Neveu