Kenney's once-upon-a-time allies lying in wait for him to fail

It is the Alberta legislature’s island of misfit toys.

Rebel MLAs making life even more difficult for Kenney, writes columnist Graham Thomson

Alberta MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes were expelled from the UCP caucus over allegations they divided the party and undermined government leadership. (Government of Alberta)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years.

It is the Alberta legislature's island of misfit toys.

A corner of the assembly where sit three former government MLAs who were booted out of the UCP caucus this year and are now so far removed from the centre of power they might as well be sitting out in the hallway.

Say hello to Drew Barnes (Cypress-Medicine Hat), Todd Loewen (Central Peace-Notley) and Pat Rehn (Lesser Slave Lake).

If you are Premier Jason Kenney, you'd dearly love to say goodbye to them.

The three are embarrassments to Kenney, daily reminders of how his government has mishandled the pandemic, failed to deliver on key election promises, and alienated supporters in rural Alberta.

As such, they are also a threat. Well, two of them are.

Rehn really is an embarrassment, an MLA who was booted out for absenteeism. Mind you, he was also something of a scapegoat, being the only one of a half dozen government MLAs to be kicked out for jetting off to vacation hotspots during the holidays.

Barnes and Loewen are much more difficult to ignore.

Tip of the iceberg

They are not lone wolves but are leaders of packs of disgruntled conservatives. They are former Wildrose MLAs who are disappointed and disillusioned with Kenney's UCP.

Not only have they criticized Kenney's handling of the pandemic, they have demanded Kenney resign.

"Albertans perceive our government as out of touch and arrogant, and they expect our caucus to bring their issues of concern to the government," wrote Loewen to Kenney in a letter in May that led to his dismissal from caucus. "Our supporters and those I represent can no longer tolerate this. These folks have not abandoned the principles and values of the UCP, but they have abandoned you specifically."

Kenney has tried to dismiss Barnes and Loewen as selfish showboaters, interested only in their own political ambitions. But they are the tip of an iceberg and, according to recent political opinion polls, Kenney is looking like the captain of the Titanic.

Barnes and Loewen are free to speak their mind and nobody does stream of consciousness better than Barnes who is now able to disgorge awkward questions at the premier during question period, as he did last week: "Given that recent stats show that if an election were held today, only one in four Albertans would vote for this premier's government and given that the premier doesn't like to face questions about how he has lost the support of Albertans and lifelong Conservative volunteers alike while being out-fund-raised by the opposition, Mr. Premier, will your low popularity jeopardize Alberta's upcoming equalization referendum along with our chance for a fair and prosperous partnership with other Canadian provinces?"

Kenney's limp comeback was to call Barnes – an MLA Kenney was defending as a champion of free speech just a month ago – a separatist.

Loewen is also speaking freely and creating mischief for Kenney.

The two are something of a tag team, writing op-eds together, holding mini-scrums together with reporters, and bolstering each other in legislative debates.

'A culture thing'

They both took shots at Kenney this week when he and several cabinet ministers appeared to break COVID-restrictions by holding a not-socially-distant boozy dinner party atop the notorious "Sky Palace." Barnes and Loewen are not fans of restrictions but are happy to point out what they say are the hypocritical actions of the premier.

Premier Jason Kenney, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and a staff member were photographed dining outdoors on the evening of June 1. (Submitted)

"It's a culture thing," said Barnes, alluding to the three great sins that helped sink PC governments of the past: arrogance, indifference and a culture of entitlement.

During debate on the government's Bill 51 to allow voters to recall miscreant MLAs, Loewen introduced an amendment to make it much easier to fire unpopular MLAs.

Loewen's amendment garnered the support of Barnes. Interestingly, it also got a thumbs up from UCP MLA Jason Stephan.

"I'm also supporting this amendment because it is consistent with the membership initiative held at our AGM," said Stephan whose rhetoric sounded like a slap against Kenney's top-down leadership style. "You know, we are a party of the grassroots."

Loewen's amendment failed but not before Kenney admitted he "rushed" from his office to the assembly to join the debate. Kenney is a self-professed geek on issues of direct democracy but he also did not want Loewen's criticism of the bill as being too weak to go unchallenged.

Kenney is desperate to regain support in rural Alberta where some disgruntled UCP supporters are sitting on the fence or sniffing around for a new political home.

Kenney's fate certainly does not lie in the hands of Barnes and Loewen.

His fate lies largely in freeing Alberta from the pandemic once and for all.

If his plan to reopen the economy works, Barnes and Loewen will become little more than political footnotes.

If Kenney's plan should fail and we are plunged into a fourth wave with all the resultant anger and chaos, Barnes and Loewen will be leaving the island of misfit toys to lead the revolt to tear apart Kenney's United Conservative Party


Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.