Canada

Carson Jerema: Jason Kenney was never in danger of being overthrown by the party he created

But the premier remains unpopular and the health system is still in crisis

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To call Alberta’s would-be rebels disorganized would be a compliment. The handful of MLAs who reportedly spoke against Premier Jason Kenney’s leadership at a Calgary caucus meeting on Wednesday had complaints ranging from too many COIVD restrictions, to not enough, to personal grievances, to concerns over the United Conservative Party’s electability. Yet after days of agitating for the premier to resign, they dropped their knives as soon as they drew them.

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This is how it was always destined to end. Kenney bears responsibility for a crashing health-care system when his “open for good” plan backfired after a wave of unvaccinated COVID-19 patients filled the province’s already-expanded intensive care spaces. But the UCP is his party. It isn’t that much of an exaggeration to say he willed it into existence. Who on earth would this disparate group replace him with? Who would even want the job?

After the province introduced a vaccine passport last week, the group of malcontents succeeded in leaving the impression that there was a crisis of leadership to match the crisis in Alberta’s overflowing hospitals. The push to remove Kenney was, we now know, either an exaggeration or embarrassingly haphazard. Enough MLAs supported the UCP leader at the meeting, or as the Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell put it, were “willing to kiss the premier’s ring.” An anticipated motion of non-confidence was dropped.

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That proposal was brought by R.J. Sigurdson, a southern Alberta MLA who’s opposed to restrictions. The others who spoke against Kenney haven’t been publicly confirmed, but unruly MLAs haven’t exactly been quiet. Sigurdson was among 15 members who signed a letter criticizing health measures back in April. The signatories also included Angela Pitt, who advises her constituents to “do their own research” on vaccines, and Jason Stephan, one of the MLAs caught up in the travel controversy over Christmas.

Former culture minister Leela Aheer told the Calgary Herald’s Don Braid after Health Minister Tyler Shandro was shuffled to a new post Tuesday, that, “The only thing that should have happened today is that the premier says he had failed and is stepping down.” Aheer, unlike the others, has been an advocate for stronger health measures, but she may hold a grudge after being kicked out of cabinet earlier this year. Richard Gottfried, one of the few members left over from the former Progressive Conservative party, also favours more restrictions and has been complaining publicly.

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Never mind Alberta, is there anyone on the planet who could satisfy this group if they succeeded in turfing Kenney? What appeared to be a caucus in turmoil seems no more than the consequence of Kenney allowing MLAs a freer hand to say what they want, which is novel in Canada, where parties tend to whip their members into compliance.

Whatever one’s opinions of the Alberta NDP’s policies, former premier Rachel Notley’s four years in government were relatively drama free thanks to party discipline — a trait that has also made it effective in opposition. The NDP has been relentless in highlighting every COVID failure and has mobilized an army of supporters on social media. Notley always appears in control.

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Even if Kenney has subdued this most recent challenge, and even if he survives a leadership review in the spring, he remains unpopular in Alberta. A Leger survey from late July had the NDP leading, with 45 per cent support among decided voters, compared to 33 per cent for the UCP. The lead holds in all areas of the province and among most age groups.

A more recent poll from Maru Public Opinion has Kenney’s approval rating at 32 per cent, the lowest among provincial premiers, and over 20 points below his rating after winning the 2019 election. Speculation abounds about whether the premier will step down on his own terms to save the party.

Alberta’s handling of the pandemic has ranged from disappointing to truly tragic. Restrictions were lowered or eliminated as quickly as possible and the government resisted bringing them back until it was forced to impose stricter rules than it otherwise might have. This was the case last fall, and is the case again today.

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Kenney has tried to govern as if there was no pandemic, bringing in an aggressive legislative agenda throughout 2020, introducing a controversial school curriculum overhaul and scheduling a referendum on equalization for later this fall.

He kept his promise to cut corporate taxes by 40 per cent, which made sense before the pandemic, but has failed to attract the investment it might have under normal circumstances. The removal of restrictions over the summer seemed as much foolish optimism as an attempt to fix rifts within his party and the province.

Kenney is now losing support to the left and the right, with a newly formed independence party, garnering eight per cent support, despite having almost no profile.

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The premier spent years campaigning in Alberta, first winning the Progressive Conservative leadership despite much hostility from within that party, then merging it with the Wildrose and finally winning government. All the while, Kenney preached the gospel of free markets, limited government, low taxes, good jobs and personal choice. He was often angry, but he had a clear vision. He presented himself as a rebel, despite being a career politician.

The rebels that have now come for Kenney definitely lack his drive. Will the voting public prove more determined?

National Post
[email protected]
Twitter.com/CarsonJerema

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