“I regret that, that it had to come to this, but I respect the decision our caucus has made.”
The meeting took place after Loewen, a senior backbencher, publicly called for Kenney’s resignation
Loewen, who is the MLA for Central Peace-Notley, 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.
Loewen was the first MLA to openly break with Kenney, saying the party is adrift and out of touch under Kenney. He feels the premier must quit before things spiral further.
Speaking with Global News Friday afternoon, Barnes echoed those comments.
He said he’s had hundreds of constituents reach out and express concerns about Kenney’s leadership and the direction of the UCP.
“When, in Alberta, you’re polling at the same popularity as Justin Trudeau, that has to tell you you’re part of the problem.”
Barnes said Kenney told members many times he wanted a caucus that could speak up and hold dissenting views, so he spoke up.
When asked by Ganam if voting to remove the two from caucus is a contradiction of what Kenney has said the past, the premier disagreed, saying he’s defended democratic debate but, at the end of the day, a caucus has to be able to operate with a degree of solidarity and mutual trust.
“We need to we need to believe that we’re all on the same team and what our caucus decided yesterday, unfortunately, is that a couple of our members really weren’t acting consistent with that,” he said.
“It’s clearly not a decision just about disagreeing with government policy because we have a lot of members who’ve done that, but I think they’ve done it in a way that tries to maintain the unity of our team, and that was really the basis of yesterday’s decision.”
Calgary political scientist Lori Williams said it’s good the government has tabled this because it needs to focus on the pandemic, but she doesn’t think issues are over.
“He’s (Kenney) perhaps postponed the challenges but I don’t think he’s eliminated them,” she told Global News on Friday.
But she feels many Albertans are likely breathing a sigh of relief, saying most don’t care about what’s happening with divisions in the UCP, but they may have questions about the premier’s decisions or style of leadership.
“Right now, the priority for most Albertans is COVID-19.”
While appearing on Global News, Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said now was not the time to have this discussion, calling the timing of Loewen’s letter “ridiculous.”
“They spent a whole day yesterday — you had the minister of health and the minister of social services and the premier spending a whole day yesterday dealing with this when they have to be dealing with people dying.
“Frankly, you should have had the common decency and the common humanity to say, ‘We’ll deal with our political issues and our political power plays later. Let’s get through this first.’”
Kenney has had to deal with dissension for months, but said UCP backbenchers aren’t in cabinet and don’t speak for government. A lot of the recent dissent has surrounded Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions.
In April, 17 UCP MLAs signed their name to a letter slamming the decision to move back to Step 1 plan for relaunching the economy due to a spike in COVID cases.
Barnes and Loewen both signed their name to that letter.
Williams pointed to the fact that MLAs and constituency associations may not have been consulted or given advance information about incoming restrictions, possibly leading them to feel meaningless in the process.
“It’s an ongoing issue and now the focus has become Jason Kenney’s leadership,” she said. “And make no mistake about it, that is now the focus.”
The premier stressed several times during the interview the decision to remove Loewen and Barnes was a decision of the entirety of caucus, and not one spearheaded by him.
Kenney said if a member clearly crosses an ethical or legal line, the leader must act in terms of removing someone from caucus. In this case, it was more a matter of coherence with the team, mutual trust and respect for other members, he said, making it more appropriate for the caucus to make the decision.
“I can tell you that this was a motion proposed by individual members of caucus,” Kenney said. “It was fairly debated over several hours, I would say quite respectfully, and nobody likes it. But they had to make a tough decision and they did.”
He added he did express his disappointment with the conduct of the two MLAs and that “some people” are aware of that, but said he didn’t reveal his vote.
Barnes will continue to sit as an Independent and will continue to represent his riding of Cypress-Medicine Hat. He’s hoping the premier “gets it back on track.”
“I hope that he starts to pick that real fight with Ottawa. I hope he starts to protect our civil liberties and I hope he starts to realize the element of fairness and the taxation and debt problems he has added to since the Notley government. I hope he pivots,” he said.
“I hope he starts to be part of the solution so Alberta can be free and prosperous.”
The big question for many now is whether Kenney can survive this. Williams said it’s too early to know. If there was a leadership contest now, she thinks there would be “insufficient support” for the premier. But as Alberta moves forward, COVID gets better under control and people are less threatened by the economic and health impacts of the pandemic, things may “soften” somewhat for Kenney.
“With two years’ runway to work with, it’s possible. It’s an uphill battle, it’s a very steep uphill battle, but it’s not impossible.”
Kenney didn’t provide a lot of specifics as to why Barnes was voted out, but said MLAs saw a “very serious pattern of behaviour that increasingly reflected bad faith and an unwillingness to work with the team.”
– With files from Karen Bartko, Global News