Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus has voted to turf out two of their own for challenging the leader.
The meeting took place after Loewen, a senior backbencher, publicly called for Premier Jason Kenney’s resignation.
“There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership, especially at this critical juncture for our province,” reads a statement released Thursday night from United Conservative Caucus Whip Mike Ellis.
“Members recognize the need for government caucus to remain strong and united behind our leader, Premier Jason Kenney, as we continue to fight through what looks to be the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.”
“We look forward to moving ahead as a stronger, more united team.”
Loewen, who is the MLA for Central Peace-Notley — a sprawling rural constituency in northern Alberta — said in a letter posted on Facebook in the pre-dawn hours Thursday that he no longer has confidence in the premier. In his letter, Loewen also resigned as caucus chair.
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. He said the party is adrift and out of touch under Kenney and that the premier must quit before things spiral further.
He was also one of 16 mainly UCP backbenchers to sign a letter last month decrying the province’s COVID-19 measures aimed at protecting lives.
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who was also one of the 16, had been the most vocal critic of Kenney’s COVID-19 health restrictions, saying they are of questionable effect and an intolerable infringement on personal freedoms.
He said the effects of lockdowns on mental, physical, spiritual and economic health are “just as bad as the COVID crisis.”
Barnes also joined a national coalition pushing against lockdowns, but later ended his involvement in the group after the founder compared measures to slow the spread of COVID-19 to Nazi-era Germany.
A statement from the premier’s office Thursday night did not acknowledge the criticism levelled at him, instead stating: “The premier is proud to stand with his caucus colleagues and lead Alberta through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century.
“He looks forward to putting the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and working towards Alberta’s economic recovery.”
Global News spoke to Loewen after he was removed by caucus. He said while he will likely now technically sit as an Independent MLA in the legislature, he still considers himself a UCP MLA, even though he has been upset by his own government since well before the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said he still has the support of his constituency association.
“Obviously I’m disappointed,” he said after the vote. “I think it was a situation where they shot the messenger instead of dealing with the problems that we have in caucus and in Alberta as a whole.
“I’m here to support my constituents and represent my constituents — that’s what’s important to me. My constituents have been loud and clear that there’s a problem with the leadership in this party and so I just felt obligated to represent them and bring that forward.”
Loewen said UCP party members’ frustration with Kenney’s leadership and the UCP government started to become apparent only six months after it was elected. He said party members and MLAs have raised concerns about not feeling listened to multiple times but have not been taken seriously.
“It just keeps getting ignored and pushed aside and I just felt I had to take the next step, and I know it was a big step,” he said.
Loewen said he believes the way the emergency caucus meeting was held shows how dysfunctional the government is, adding that the fact the voting on his and Barnes’ removal was not done in secret will leave questions in the air about how much support Kenney has from his caucus.
“I would be very surprised if he was the leader in the next election,” Loewen said of Kenney, adding he believes there are other UCP MLAs that are now “considering different things.”
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary’s Mount Royal University, said he believes the open challenge to Kenney’s leadership would likely not have occurred if he were performing better in polls.
“He is incredibly wounded today,” he said.
“He got the result that was needed, but the fact it… took this degree of work… He’s a wounded leader.”
Bratt said that because it was a seven-hour long meeting leading up to the vote, with much of the discussion leaked to the media, he believes that signals the frustration in the party’s caucus remains.
“That tells me that Loewen and Barnes had supporters in that room,” he said. “I don’t think the story’s over yet.
“We saw two expelled from caucus, now the question is, are there going to be others who voluntarily leave the party once they think about what transpired today?”
Bratt said he thought it was interesting that Barnes, who did not publicly express support for Loewen’s letter, was removed while David Hanson, another UCP MLA who did voice support for Loewen’s letter, was allowed to stay. He acknowledged, however, that Barnes has been a longtime critic of his own government.
“They’re not united,” Bratt said of the UCP, adding that he wonders how it looks to Albertans that the government appears to be consumed with party infighting as the province grapples with one of the worst COVID-19 situations in North America.
Kenney is scheduled to appear on Corus Entertainment’s 630 CHED and 770 CHQR radio stations at at 9:10 a.m. on Friday morning to respond to the latest developments within the UCP.
— With files from Global News’ Phil Heidenreich and Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press