Premier Jason Kenney tried to make his problem of political survival the problem of all Alberta conservatives on Saturday, but experts say that’s not the reality.
The United Conservative Party’s special general meeting – whose sole purpose is to review Kenney’s leadership – met on Saturday morning.
In his address to party members, Kenney offered two paths: division or unity. The first, he said, would erode the UCP and lead the opposition NDP to form a government after next year’s provincial election.
“I ask you not to compare me to the Almighty, but to the alternative,” he said, referring to NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
Kenney enters the weekend an unpopular figure, primarily due to frustrations surrounding decisions made during the COVID-19 pandemic and his leadership style. Recent polls from the Angus Reid Institute suggest that the Premier of Alberta has only one 30% approval note, and a upper disapproval than the NDP.
Brian Jean, UCP MP for Fort McMurray-Lac la Biche, was candid about taking over the party. Doug Schweitzer, the current Minister of Jobs, Economy and Innovation, and Danielle Smith, UCP nomination candidate for the constituency of Livingstone-Macleod, have also expressed their desire to run for the party leadership.
But on Saturday, Kenney tried to convince party members that he was the one who could keep the party together, lead it to prosperity and keep “the socialists” out of power.
The Prime Minister has largely defended the decisions made during the pandemic, expressing only a few regrets. He also praised its achievements, such as balancing the provincial budget this year.
Kenney ended his speech by saying that unifying the Conservatives in Alberta takes “constant effort,” and that it is much easier to criticize than to lead during historic crises.
Conservative alternatives exist
Lori Williams, an associate professor of political studies at Mount Royal University, said Kenney’s speech – in which he suggested the NDP and the federal Liberal government were “a big threat” – went as planned .
She noted, however, that Kenney’s claim to be the only option available to the Tories is short-sighted, as polls suggest Brian Jean would fare better against Notley in an election.
“Today’s speech tried to persuade Albertans to look forward, not backward, and that he is the key to the future, unlike anyone else,” said Williams.
“But that alternative isn’t necessarily Rachel Notley. It could well be Brian Jean. That could be the key to UCP’s success, and he could be a more attractive alternative to UCP.”
Lisa Young, a political science professor at the University of Calgary, agrees. But Young also noticed that the Prime Minister spent a lot of time reciting his resume, for example as a federal cabinet minister.
“Those qualifications would certainly be things we would expect to hear if he ran for leadership of the party, but not necessarily to retain leadership,” Young said.
In a statement to CBC News, Jean accused Kenney of splitting the party and said Kenney’s speech resorted to fear, leaving the choice between “more of the same” or the NDP.
The PCU should be more than one person, Jean said in an emailed statement.
Respect the results
Some have criticized the mail-in voting system that will be used to vote on Kenney’s leadership ahead of the review.
Ballots will be mailed to party members. They are expected at 5 p.m. on May 11, then the results will be revealed on May 18.
Before introducing the Prime Minister on stage on Saturday, Cynthia Moore, president of the UCP, stressed that the mail-in system is “the most democratic way to organize this vote”.
“There are some who, if they don’t get the desired result, will say it’s a flawed process,” Moore said. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”
The RCMP is still investigating allegations of fraud and identity theft related to the 2017 vote.
Kenney said on Saturday he would respect the results of the vote – and he expects others to do the same.
“If the members decide they want to have a leadership election, I will step down,” he said.
“I believe that all of our members will expect every member of our caucus and team to equally respect the members’ decision democratically expressed in this review vote.”
For Young, it was Kenney speaking directly to potential competitors, especially Brian Jean.
“If I win, I expect you to be a loyal, low-key member of my caucus. Otherwise, you’re out,” she said.
“He’s drawn his line in the sand now.”