UCP convention not the end of Kenney's leadership — but perhaps the beginning of the end

No matter what happens at this weekend’s United Conservative Party convention in Calgary, Jason Kenney will still be premier and party leader on Monday.

The knives are out for the premier, it's just a matter of when they strike

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney announces funding and new steps being taken to help support Albertans experiencing homelessness and domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic in Edmonton on Wednesday. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

No matter what happens at this weekend's United Conservative Party convention in Calgary, Jason Kenney will still be Alberta premier and party leader on Monday.

For Kenney, this is not the end. But squint a little and you can see it from here.

The knives are out for Kenney. It's just a matter of when they strike.

That's what's up for debate at the convention: the timing of a leadership vote.

Simply put, Kenney wants more time to save himself and disgruntled members want more time to save their party.

Currently, the UCP has scheduled a vote on Kenney's leadership for the weekend of April 8-9, 2022.

Kenney wants as much time as possible for things to improve: for the price of oil and gas to rise; for the economy to recover; for the pandemic to recede into the background.

He is hoping that by April all will be better, including the mood of angry party members. If that happens, he'll be in a better position to convince them he can win the next provincial election scheduled for May 29, 2023.

However, a significant number of UCP members are so fed up with Kenney they want the leadership vote to be held as soon as possible, certainly before March 1.

They want to boot out Kenney and give a new leader as much time as possible to rebuild the party's credibility and popularity in advance of 2023.

Samantha Steinke, president of the UCP's Central Peace-Notley constituency association, told journalists this week her board members "overwhelmingly do not support the premier."

But others don't want this to degenerate into a fight between pro-Kenney and anti-Kenney forces, where members would not only be washing their dirty laundry in public but setting it on fire.

They're trying to frame the debate more diplomatically.

"Do we have some members displeased with the leader? Of course we do," said Jack Redekop, president of the UCP's Calgary-Fish Creek constituency association. "Do we have some members that are completely supportive of the leader? Yes we do."

Despite calls for leadership review, Jason Kenney says party is ‘united’

2 years ago
Duration 1:28
Asked about calls by many UCP constituency offices to expedite a leadership review, Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says the party is united and is focusing on “big issues, not internal party politics."

Redekop is not speaking just for himself. He represents one-quarter, or 22, of the party's riding associations that have passed identical motions to force a fast-tracked leadership vote.

However, Kenney loyalists have put forward a resolution at this weekend's annual general meeting to raise the requirements for an early vote to one-third, or 29, of the riding associations. In other words, they want the vote to remain in April.

They say it's not fair that a mere one-quarter of the party's associations can put Kenney through the wringer, if not the chopper. So they'll be arriving at the convention with shovels in hand, metaphorically speaking, to dig up the goalposts and move them before Redekop and friends can score a goal.

The difference between a vote at the end of February and one on April 8 might only be six weeks, but both sides say those six weeks will be crucial to determine the fate of the party.

Stage set for political drama

Expect to see some heated debate this weekend, if not a civil war.

Redekop, though, wants more than just an early leadership review where only members with the money, means and time to attend a convention in-person can cast a vote.

In a letter to the UCP's provincial leadership, Redekop is asking that every member be able to cast a ballot. And he wants the vote supervised by an independent auditing firm.

"We know that the media in the past has suggested that there was some inappropriate malfeasance with previous campaigns," Redekop said in a not-so-subtle reference to the continuing controversy surrounding the UCP leadership race that Kenney won in 2017. "We just wanted to make sure that we quelled any possibility of that rumour spreading with this particular vote."

Rumours and speculation are already swirling around this weekend's convention.

UCP MLA Peter Guthrie has alleged that Kenney-friendly political action committees (also called third-party advertisers) are paying the way for Kenney-friendly members to stack this weekend's debates in favour of the premier.

"I'm not involved in third-party organizations, but third-party political organizations are free within the law to be involved in politics," said Kenney, in a comment sure to spike the suspicions of members and MLAs who have lost faith in the premier. They worry he will manipulate events this weekend, making a mockery of his "grassroots guarantee" that members are the ultimate boss of the UCP, not him.

Further undermining that guarantee is a story this week from CBC reporter Elise von Scheel that reveals the premier's office sent written directions to political staff who would be attending this weekend's AGM.

The memo, dispatched in August while party members were vetting possible policy resolutions for debate, encouraged the staff to "downvote" resolutions so they wouldn't make it to the convention floor. Subsequently, the final list of resolutions includes one supporting "conscience rights" for health care workers while a resolution supporting a provincial sales tax was axed.

Kenney's office would only say it's not unusual for political staff to be involved in party politics. Yes, but that doesn't explain what's going on here.

It's not unusual for political leaders to surreptitiously massage events at annual meetings to maintain control of the proceedings and avoid embarrassing moments.

But to put the directions in writing reveals a leadership that doesn't trust its members. And for the memo to be leaked to the news media reveals members who don't trust their leadership.

The knives are out for Kenney. We just don't know yet when they'll be used or whether they'll inflict wounds that are politically fatal.