Kenney feeling more confident in his leadership than he has for 'very long time' following UCP convention
Political scientist says unity remains an issue within the party
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is leaving his party's annual general meeting feeling more confident in his leadership, despite low approval ratings and public disagreement among conservative political rivals and party MLAs.
The United Conservative Party wrapped up its first in-person convention in two years Sunday.
Kenney entered the weekend bearing low popularity ratings and attacks on his leadership. But he told reporters Sunday that he heard nothing but support in Calgary.
"I feel more confident about my leadership today than, frankly, I have in a very long time," Kenney said during a news conference.
Several United Conservative MLAs have publicly criticized the premier recently. Brian Jean, the former Wildrose Party Leader who is seeking the UCP nomination to run for the vacant Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche MLA seat, has called for Kenney to step down as party leader.
Twenty-two constituency associations also just passed motions asking for a review of Kenney's leadership before March.
A resolution, drafted by the Edmonton North West constituency association, was presented at the convention Friday. It proposed upping the number of constituency associations needed to call a leadership review from 22 to 29, making it harder to initiate such a review.
The resolution failed, however, only receiving 57 per cent support. It needed 75 per cent to pass.
A leadership review was slated for some time in April.
But the resolution failing means the UCP board of directors has to decide what to do about the letter from the 22 constituencies, Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, told CBC News.
"It looks pretty slam-dunk," Bratt said, explaining the review has to happen before the end of February, per the party's constitution.
"That remains a form of division. I mean, the motion to raise the threshold to one-third failed. But the premier is talking like [the leadership review] is still going to be in April."
Kenney said he welcomes being held accountable.
Support exceeded Kenney's expectations
Kenney worked the room on the weekend and said he spoke with hundreds of delegates. Of those, he said he only heard one person boo him. It was for pushing COVID-19 vaccines.
On Saturday, Kenney gave a 38-minute speech to about 1,500 party members that urged unity. He received two standing ovations throughout.
"I don't expect you'll ever be at a party convention where 100 per cent of people agree on 100 per cent of things, including leadership. That's not our expectation," Kenney said.
"But what happened here far exceeded my best expectations."
There were, he said, several "tough questions" regarding COVID-19 policy, particularly about Alberta's restrictions exemption program and Kenney's disappearance and inaction last summer when case numbers spiked.
Generally, things ran smoothly and there were no dramatic disruptions, Bratt said. But unity remains an issue.
He pointed to Brian Jean and Danielle Smith in particular. Smith, a former Wildrose Party leader who crossed the floor in 2014, suddenly announced she'd run for the UCP if Kenney resigns.
Some people at the convention, including Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Tany Yao, suggested this weekend that there is definitely some discontent within the party.
Some convention attendees wore memorabilia expressing their feelings either way.
Much of the applause Kenney received Saturday evening, Bratt noted, came when he spoke about Alberta Opposition NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau or U.S. President Joe Biden — talking points that are supposed to unify.
Bratt didn't see any MLAs openly rally others to support the premier. The public events also don't account for what people say privately, he said.
"It's often what you don't hear that's just as important as what you do."
Looking ahead to 2023
The next provincial election is two years away, but people have to start asking themselves now whether Kenney is the right person to lead the party in 2023, Bratt said.
Kenney believes the UCP will be judged based on how many commitments it fulfilled during its tenure once the election rolls around, he said Sunday.
He also believes it's crucial for conservatives to stay united, because when they're divided they lose, he said, pointing to the NDP 2015 election victory.
"At the end of the day, what we saw here is an understanding that we've got to be united in our diversity, work together and be focused on the priorities of Albertans — not internal political differences."
With files from Emily Fitzpatrick and Michelle Bellefontaine