UCP MLAs look to leadership review for answers ahead of 2023 election

April is known to bring signs of spring and the final thaw of winter to Alberta. This year, some United Conservative MLAs are hoping it also brings renewal for their governing party as the months tick down to the May 2023 provincial election. 

Some say they're looking for solutions that will bring the party back together — with or without Jason Kenney

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney will face a leadership review by party members on April 9 in Red Deer. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

April is known to bring signs of spring and the final thaw of winter to Alberta. 

This year, some United Conservative MLAs are hoping it also brings renewal for their governing party as the months tick down to the May 2023 provincial election. 

Premier Jason Kenney will face a leadership review by party members on April 9 in Red Deer. Many in his caucus are looking expectantly to that date to provide some cohesion in their struggling party as they gear up to face Rachel Notley's NDP, whom they trail in the polls by double digits. 

Some MLAs say the leadership needs to search for solutions that will stitch the party back together — whether that involves Jason Kenney or not. 

CBC News spoke to five UCP caucus members about the path forward. The MLAs fall on different sides of both COVID management and whether they want Kenney to continue as leader. They also represent both rural and urban ridings.

"The party no longer has balance. It should be a good balance between the leader and the people," one MLA said. "The opportunity is here to set things right."

CBC News has agreed not to use their names because they feared repercussions from party leadership and the premier's office for discussing these matters publicly. Other MLAs were contacted but did not respond or declined to comment.

Use 2022 to show Albertans we can pivot, MLAs say

The MLAs say to win the next election, the party needs to show Albertans it can be responsible and provide capable leadership during a time of change for the province. 

Some members CBC spoke to admitted the government has fallen short on that.

"The feedback is that there's great concerns about being committed to being principled," an MLA said. "Does this government only do the right thing when it's exposed?"

Several MLAs said the handling of cabinet minister scandals, the photos of a patio dinner during time of heavy COVID restrictions and government flip-flopping on other policies like coal mining, often makes it difficult to defend the government's actions to their constituents.

"In some areas of government there is a sense of entitlement, but I also think that the leadership style of the premier hasn't created a culture of humility, honesty or transparency," one said.

"People expect open, transparent, truthful government and I didn't get elected to deliver anything but that. Albertans deserve better."

Another MLA said so much energy is spent on internal crises that little is left to debate policy. 

Two other members said they're confident about the party's positioning on the economy and their ability to promote that message. Each mentioned how they think the upcoming budget will give Albertans a boost. 

"We have done some very good things," one said.

But one political scientist says the leadership vote may not be enough to heal the fractures. 

"If Jason Kenney loses the leadership vote, then they'll be in the process of trying to find another leader. If Jason Kenney wins and doesn't effectively respond to all of the demands and concerns that are swirling around him … then those concerns and demands will continue to circulate and flourish, and all of those same challenges to the leadership will persist," said Lori Williams at Mount Royal University. 

The negative feedback from Albertans — that these members say they've raised in caucus meetings — is coming at a time when chasms within the party have widened. 

A house divided

Rumours of a planned UCP caucus mutiny swirled almost monthly last year. Ultimately, the disgruntled MLAs never followed through. But the grassroots constituency associations did, when about a quarter of them submitted a motion calling for an early leadership review of Kenney just before the party's fall annual general meeting.

The party moved up Kenney's leadership review to April 9. The five MLAs that CBC spoke to say they're hopeful the outcome of that vote will present a clearer path forward for the party — but they were split 60-40 on whether they think Kenney should lead the party into 2023. 

"The premier's consistent lack of reconciliation with the truth, coupled with his clear lack of leadership just speaks volumes," a rural UCP member said of Kenney's track record.

"He's only done harm to the public's lack of trust in government."

Three MLAs mentioned concerns about the sanctity of the leadership vote, given allegations of irregularities in the 2017 leadership race.

"The review is happening in the same way that every leadership review has happened in every major political party in Canada since leadership reviews started," a statement from the UCP reads. 

"Voting will be overseen by constituency association presidents who have all been invited to be scrutineers."

In November, the premier said he was more confident in his leadership than he had been in some time.

Several MLAs CBC spoke to were concerned the special general meeting in April will be inaccessible to many members based on geography, affordability and time constraints. 

One said if party members don't feel like the event is fair, it won't repair the crevasse the last two years have exposed within the party.

"If you break those circles you damage your potential for electoral success," they said. 

The party, its leader and MLAs are all in a tough spot, Williams said. 

"If you think you're going to lose your next election, if your political future is in jeopardy, you can be much more willing to take a chance," she said.

"A good leader deals effectively with dissent, either by responding meaningfully or cutting loose people who cannot be brought into the fold, and party unity hinges on effective leadership." 

Short runway, long to-do list

The UCP MLAs said they think unity, while elusive, lies in returning to a focus on the economy, quelling internal issues and listening to the grassroots.

They said many Albertans are still concerned about the rising cost of living and emerging from COVID, and want to see a plan for Alberta that addresses those concerns. 

The UCP members all want to avoid sitting in the opposition benches, but the first milestone in their minds is April as they face a shortening runway and a long to-do list to get the party election ready.