Simmering internal discontent within Alberta Premier Jason Kenney‘s United Conservative caucus has now boiled over into an open challenge to his leadership.
An emergency caucus meeting was held Thursday afternoon after United Conservative senior backbencher Todd Loewen publicly called for Kenney’s resignation.
Loewen received a message of support from a second UCP backbencher, Dave Hanson.
In a radio interview, Loewen said he doesn’t want to divide the United Conservative Party, but added volunteers and supporters are bailing out and the UCP is heading for electoral disaster in 2023.
“The people are upset. They are leaving the party,” Loewen told 630 CHED. “We need to do what it takes to stop the bleeding.
“We need to have our constituency associations strong. We’ve got to quit losing board members.
“The majority of people I’m talking to, they want a strong UCP party. But they don’t see that they have that now. We need to have that so we can move forward and be able to form government in 2023.”
In the letter, Loewen accuses Kenney and his government of weak dealings with Ottawa, ignoring caucus members, delivering contradictory messages, and botching critical issues such as negotiations with doctors and a controversy over coal-mining in the Rocky Mountains.
“We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart,” writes Loewen.
“Many Albertans, including myself, no longer have confidence in your leadership.
“I thank you for your service, but I am asking that you resign so that we can begin to put the province back together again.”
Kenney’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
Loewen is the member for Central Peace-Notley, a sprawling rural constituency in northern Alberta. Hanson represents Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul in the east.
They were two of 18 UCP backbench members to break with Kenney’s government in April over restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. The group said the rules were needlessly restrictive and infringed on personal freedoms. Sixteen wrote an open letter expressing those concerns.
Kenney has tolerated the open dissension for weeks. He has said he believes in free speech and that backbenchers are not in cabinet and don’t speak for his government.
Loewen is the first to openly break with Kenney.
In his letter, Loewen also resigned as caucus chair. He said he needed to do so to speak his mind but has no intention of leaving the party.
“The caucus dysfunction we are presently experiencing is a direct result of your leadership.”
He said backbench members are sidelined and ignored.
“I no longer believe that caucus can function properly: meetings have been cancelled without members’ consent, significant decisions of government have been made without notice to members, and our input as elected members is rarely considered.”
He said the caucus has tried to be heard but is ignored. And he said when caucus is ignored, their constituents are ignored.
“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,” wrote Loewen.
Hanson did not call for Kenney to resign but said in a Facebook post: “Todd, I applaud your courage and stand behind your decision.
“I hear the same thing from our supporters in my area. I along with many of our colleagues share in your frustration. We, along with many Albertans, worked too hard to unite conservatives to hand this province back to the NDP.”
Kenney’s poll numbers have dropped precipitously during the pandemic while those of Rachel Notley’s NDP have climbed.
Kenney, a cabinet member in Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government, was an architect of the merger of two right-centre Alberta parties — his Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose party. The United Conservative Party that resulted went on to defeat Notley and the NDP in 2019 to form a majority government.
“Along with so many Albertans, our understanding was that we in the UCP had united around our shared principles, integrity, and common-sense approaches to governing.
There were rumours of a widening internal breach two weeks ago, when Kenney suspended the legislature’s spring sitting. He said it was to keep staff and legislature members safe from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the government extended the hiatus for another week.
Loewen’s letter comes a week after Kenney risked further pushback from dissidents by imposing extra health restrictions along with stepped-up enforcement to stop soaring COVID-19 infections.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said it looked like Kenney had struck a truce with the dissidents, but the dam appears to be breaking.
“I don’t think (Loewen) is a person coming out on his own,” said Bratt, who is with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“I think you’re going to hear more coming on the record after this.”
Political scientist Jared Wesley said Kenney has no choice but to turf Loewen from caucus.
“It’s hard to imagine a world in which you can call for your leader’s resignation and still remain a part of caucus,” said Wesley of the University of Alberta.
“The risks of (Kenney) doing that are pretty steep. It would only invite further criticism if not calls for resignation from other MLAs.”
Bratt also wondered where Albertans fit into the equation.
“We’re in the middle of a pandemic. Shouldn’t the government be focusing on that (rather) than internal politics within itself?”