United Conservative Party critics renew fight for a more robust review of Kenney's leadership

Displeased United Conservative Party members sent a motion to party headquarters late last week asking that the April 9 review be opened up to a provincewide vote of all UCP members where they’d be able to cast ballots at special party polling stations set up in every riding and then have those votes added to the ballots cast at Red Deer.

Calgary MLA Richard Gotfried says he's 'fighting for fundamental democratic principles'

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney's party leadership is again under pressure from a group of United Conservative Party members. (Dave Chidley/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.

A group of United Conservative Party members are renewing their push for a provincewide vote on Premier Jason Kenney's party leadership.

Their cause might be doomed but they are not going down without a fight.

Spurred on by the Calgary-Fish Creek constituency association, they are not happy with the party's plan to have the leadership review limited to a special general meeting in Red Deer on April 9 where only party members who turn up in person can cast a ballot.

Instead, the displeased members sent a motion to party headquarters late last week asking that the review be opened up to a provincewide vote of all UCP members where they'd be able to cast ballots at special party polling stations set up in every riding – and then have those votes added to the ballots cast at Red Deer.

All of this would be supervised by an independent auditing firm.

"I'm here fighting for fundamental democratic principles," Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried told CBC News in an exclusive interview Friday.

Gotfried has become a burr under Kenney's saddle over the past year by speaking out against government "hypocrisy" on pandemic restrictions and by voting against the government's Bill 81 on campaign financing.

In Kenney's decidedly conservative UCP caucus, Gotfried is one of the few admitted progressives, being in fact one of only three sitting UCP MLAs who used to be a Progressive Conservative MLA.

He supported Kenney's leadership for the PCs in 2017 and later for the UCP. 

However, Gotfried, along with a majority of Albertans, have soured on Kenney's leadership during the pandemic, according to public opinion polls. Among other things, Kenney has been criticized for a top-down, autocratic style.

MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek Richard Gotfried has become a burr under Kenney's saddle over the past year. (CBC)

Gotfried says the party's leadership vote must be open to as many members as possible, not just those who can stack a one-day meeting in Red Deer.

"The whole idea is that the membership will decide and my perspective on it is if we don't have the support of the membership how are we going to move forward and win an election?," he said. 

Sensitive to complaints that he is simply trying to dethrone Kenney without considering how this might damage the party, Gotfried is framing the fight not as anti-Kenney but as pro-grassroots.

But there's definite snark in the motion drawn up by Gotfried's constituency association board and sent to the UCP's headquarters last week where it throws Kenney's own words back in his face.

The motion, which has been seen by CBC News, points out that "the current leader was the proponent of a Grassroots Guarantee on August 1st, 2017, stating that 'We must develop policy in the same way that we created the united party, democratically, with grassroots members in charge.'"

And it points out, "the current Leader also stated that, 'The conservative movement in Alberta fractured in recent years partly because of an arrogant, top-down style of leadership.'"

It's worth pointing out that the president of Gotfried's constituency association, Jack Redekop, led the fight by 22 ridings associations late last year to have Kenney's leadership review moved up to no later than March 1 and to have the vote open to all members.

A UCP delegate wears a "I stand with Jason Kenney" button at the party's AGM in Calgary in November. (Michelle Bellefontaine/CBC)

However, UCP officials rejected that call and instead stuck with the April 9 vote that will be open only to those who turn up in person.

Gotfried says the party's timing will disenfranchise rural UCP members busy working on farms and ranches in the spring.

Those members are not exactly enamoured with Kenney these days – accusing him of infringing on their freedoms during the pandemic – and for Kenney the fewer who turn up, the better.

An in-person vote, of course, will also make it easier for someone to stack the meeting. Gotfried is not pointing the finger at Kenney and his supporters here but you'd have to be politically naive to think Kenney supporters won't do all they can to flood the Red Deer meeting. 

By the way, Gotfried does not favour an on-line vote because of the controversy that continues to surround Kenney's victory in the UCP's on-line leadership vote in 2017.

Gotfried knows he's likely in Kenney's doghouse if not his crosshairs but Gotfried has been careful not to give Kenney an excuse to move against him. 

The most Gotfried has done, so far, is posting Tweets asking if the UCP is "moving to a decidedly Leader-centric model that mocks the #GrassrootsGuarantee?" 

He has not attacked Kenney personally or called for his resignation, being well aware of the fate of those who have. 

MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes were booted from the UCP caucus last May. UCP MLA Leela Aheer is now the target of a coup in her riding of Chestermere-Rocky View where she will have to fight to retain her status as the UCP candidate in the 2023 provincial election.

Speaking of which, a major reason why Gotfried and others want a fulsome leadership review is that the next election is set for the end of May next year and they don't want to go into it with a cloud hanging over Kenney, who is deeply unpopular and would lose an election to the NDP today, according to a succession of public opinion polls.

They want to clear the air with an honest review that either rejects or confirms Kenney's position as leader. Kenney's office is reportedly seeking a mandate of 65 per cent or better in the April vote, something that should be easy to accomplish if it's an in-person vote.

That's because an in-person vote can be easily manipulated as it was for Ed Stelmach in 2009 and for Alison Redford in 2013, where each of the PC premiers received 77 per cent support from party members at conventions (both in Red Deer). 

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But public sentiment did not mirror the party's sham support and Stelmach resigned 14 months later, Redford after four.

It's not clear yet now how many of the UCP's riding association will support the motion for a provincewide vote, Gotfried says he believes at least a dozen will support the motion and he expects that number to climb. 

While 22 pushed last fall for a provincewide vote, Gotfried is afraid some might be tired of fighting. 

The problem for Kenney's critics is that many of them are new to politics and don't have the time, resources, experience or bloody mindedness to organize a proper leadership review, never mind a palace coup.

By speaking out more forcefully now, Gotfried is sending up an emergency flare, hoping others will join the fight. 

Or at least, know that he went down fighting.

"Party members and the general public need to understand that there are people within the United Conservative Party who have been and will continue to stand up for sound and fundamental democratic principles. I think for us to fail to do so will be our demise," he told CBC News.

For the UCP, it's a sobering argument but one the party's headquarters is dismissing.

In an email exchange Friday, the party said the parameters for the April 9 in-person leadership review have been set and will not be altered now for a provincewide vote,

"The rules can only be changed at an annual general meeting and we just had an AGM 56 days ago where no such proposal was made out of over 100 that were put forward," said UCP spokesperson Dave Prisco.

By publicizing their motion for a provincewide vote, Gotfried and his allies have stepped onto the field of battle once more – but it would appear they have already been outmaneuvered.


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.


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