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Jason Kenney pleads for unity as his leadership is under increasing scrutiny


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.

The political vultures are circling.

A bit prematurely perhaps, but they’re here at the annual general meeting of the United Conservative Party this weekend in Calgary.

They’re eager to pick at the carcass of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney – even though the premier is not politically dead. Not yet. But as the most unpopular premier in the country with a disapproval rate around 80 per cent, he is most decidedly wounded.

As Kenney addressed 1,500 party members Saturday morning, Brian Jean and Danielle Smith were in the convention hall dismembering the UCP leader with their eyes.

Jean is a former leader of the Wildrose Party and Smith is, um, a former leader of the Wildrose Party. Jean’s political career ended after losing a bitterly contested UCP leadership race to Kenney in 2017. Smith blew up her political career by crossing the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in 2014.

Both see Kenney as vulnerable prey, staggering his way towards a leadership vote next spring.

Two political birds of prey aren’t exactly a flock, but they represent a number of the old right-wing, libertarian Wildrose party members who feel betrayed by Kenney.

And neither were particularly inspired by Kenney’s performance at the convention, even after many in the audience gave their leader so many standing ovations it’s a wonder organizers bothered to put chairs in the hall.

“He’s lost the trust of Albertans,” said Jean, who dismissed Kenney’s warm reception as political theatre generated by political staffers in the audience. “We don’t have time for him to play games to try to earn it back.”

Smith, who once declared herself to be “unelectable” after the politically disastrous floor-crossing seven years ago, now appears to think her political future looks rosier than even Kenney’s.

“I would feel like that if the position (of leader) was open I would have to run,” she told the Western Standard, an Alberta online news outlet. “I believe in unity and this is the real issue, so let’s throw some names on the table.”

Former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, left, once declared herself ‘unelectable’ after crossing the floor to the Progressive Conservatives in 2014. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Right now, of course, the position is not open. And Kenney is hoping to keep it that way.

His Saturday speech included a rerun of his old attacks against the “Notley-Trudeau alliance,” blaming the province’s economic woes on the “double recession” of depressed oil prices and the pandemic, and offering up a shopping list of government successes, including recent economic announcements.

But he couldn’t ignore the elephant in the room. Heck, there were so many elephants it looked like a safari.

Not only is Kenney deeply unpopular among Albertans over his handling of the pandemic, he has failed to fulfill key election promises on pipelines and the economy, is facing increasing criticism from UCP MLAs who are speaking out against his leadership, and he’ll be facing a leadership review in the spring.

“We have made mistakes in the process and, as premier, I must take responsibility for that,” said Kenney of his often muddled response to COVID. “I know that many of you are angry with me and our government for having introduced public health restrictions at various times throughout COVID. I get it, I really do. I hear you and I do so respectfully. It is no secret that these views have been strongly expressed in our caucus.”

No doubt tired of the almost daily headlines over internal squabbling, Kenney pleaded with members to air their grievances in private.

“There will be a leadership review vote next year and I want you to know I welcome that, I embrace that opportunity for accountability,” said Kenney, who was not so keen to embrace a leadership review until a mini-caucus revolt forced his hand in September.

Exactly when that vote will take place is still a question hanging over the party. And for Kenney, it’s hanging over his head like a Sword of Damocles. And a significant number of party members want to cut it loose.

Twenty-two of the UCP’s constituency associations have sent a letter to the party’s board of directors requesting the leadership review be held in February, rather than on the scheduled date of April 8.

Some Kenney loyalists, trying to buy more time for their leader, attempted to thwart a fast-tracked review during a debate Friday, but were defeated in a vote.

The UCP is still trying to figure out what to do with Kenney.

The answer is not always binary. Some want him gone, others want him to stay. And then there are members like Rajan Sawhney, the minister of transportation, who support Kenney but start to equivocate when it comes to predicting party support.

“I’m not sure because, as you all know, there’s been a lot of diversity of thought on that, but I know he’s working hard,” said Sawhney. “In terms of how things are going to look like, I think time will tell.”

Yes, time.

That’s something of a precious commodity for Kenney, as the party ponders his future. And the vultures start to circle.

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