EDMONTON — Jason Kenney is finished — or not. He’s the only hope the United Conservative Party has at re-election — or their greatest liability. It all depends on who you ask about the former Harper cabinet minister turned Alberta premier.
On May 18, the United Conservative Party — and Albertans — will find out if Kenney retains his job as party leader when the results of a leadership review are made public after roughly one month of mail-in voting.
Whatever the outcome, the question that’s looming over the party is whether the UCP can defeat Rachel Notley’s New Democrats in the 2023 election.
“Everything comes down to the election, basically a year from now,” said Zane Novak, with Take Back Alberta, a committee created to get rid of Kenney. “If the UCP doesn’t have its act together, we believe that their chances of success are very slim. And we feel that with Jason Kenney at the helm that their chances of success are almost impossible.”
Brock Harrison, who’s running communications for Kenney’s leadership review team, said unity is key ahead of an election.
“There’s a ton of work to do and you’re seeing, the NDP, they’re already doing it,” said Harrison. “And we’ve been hamstrung by this leadership review.”
We’ve been hamstrung by this leadership review
When Kenney united Alberta’s right back in 2017 and won the 2019 general election, he did so on a massive wave of support. But the premier has had a rough few years — a lot has changed since April 16, 2019, when Kenney declared that “help is on the way and hope is on the horizon.”
For months, polls have reflected Kenney’s unpopularity among UCP voters and Albertans at large. In April, polling from ThinkHQ found that just 29 per cent of Albertans approved of Kenney’s job performance. It also showed 61 per cent of current United Conservatives want Kenney gone, and 45 per cent say they would be less likely to vote United Conservative in the 2023 election if Kenney’s leading the party.
Many who want Kenney gone have expressed a deep anger over the way the United Conservatives handled the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There had already started to be a lot of frustration,” said Novak. “The whole thing just came to a flashpoint — accelerated — when it became the mandates, the pandemic and how he handled it.”
On April 9, when the party kicked off the leadership review with a special general meeting, Kenney addressed those who disliked his COVID-19 approach directly, saying the party risked looking in the “rear view mirror” and ending up in a divisive leadership contest.
“It will drive a wedge right down the middle of our party from which we may never again recover, and there’s only one person who wins from that, and her name is Rachel Notley,” Kenney said.
There are other decisions that have frustrated the party’s base. For example, Kenney’s unite the right campaign had promised to respect grassroots decision-making, but as far back as 2018 Kenney said, “I hold the pen on the platform.”
Over the past year, the party has been riven by infighting, much of it public. In September 2021, leaks from caucus suggested a putsch was imminent. At the November annual general meeting, anti-Kenney members attempted to take over the party’s board. None of this was successful; Team Kenney has held its ground.
But will it on May 18?
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The leadership vote is happening by mail — itself a controversy. Ballots were due in to Deloitte, which has been hired as an independent overseer and manager, on May 11. On May 18, the party will reconvene its special general meeting to announce the results.
When the party first decided in December to hold a leadership review, the plan was for in-person voting in Red Deer on April 9. But on March 23, the party announced a change: More than 15,000 people had registered to come vote, paying a fee to do so, and the party said, simply, they could not manage that amount of in-person voting.
Instead, ballots were mailed out to the nearly 60,000 party members. This has sapped some of the confidence in the process. Brian Jean, the former Wildrose party leader, who lost in 2017 to Kenney in the race to lead the United Conservatives, said in a March statement that “a rushed mail-in ballot is a formula for fraud and cheating.” (Jean, who recently won a byelection to return to provincial politics, has been open about his desire to see Kenney gone — and that he’d like to replace him.)
The anti-Kenney side argues the extended timeline for the vote allowed Kenney to do a lap around the province, promoting the fuel tax cut that came into effect April 1 and the upcoming rebates for home heating costs.
“On and on and on he uses our tax dollars to make himself look like a hero and detract, deflect, smoke and mirrors away from the mail-in ballot,” said Novak.
Cynthia Moore, the party’s president, told the Calgary Herald she’s “absolutely convinced” the vote will be fair and honest. “The premier was not involved at all in the decision-making,” Moore said.
Kenney’s opponents argue that the in-person voting favoured those who were mad enough to buy a pass to the special meeting and take time from their lives to drive to Red Deer — ie., their camp. A wider membership vote reaches those with less fiery bellies, or older members instead of new, agitated ones, and that may favour Kenney.
“If people are now saying, well, ‘Jason’s more popular, a vote of the broader membership advantages Jason,’ well, so be it,” said Harrison. “If the allegation is that that Jason is more popular with grassroots members, then I guess, you know, guilty as charged.”
There are three basic scenarios before the party: Kenney wins big, Kenney wins small or Kenney loses. All lead into the election question.
Kenney has said that he will step aside if he loses the leadership review. If that happens, the party would enter a leadership race to find someone to lead the party against the Notley NDP next year.
“A new leader means the party, potentially, can go in an infinite number of directions,” said Matt Solberg, with New West Public Affairs. “And if there is a new leader coming, it’d be at least six months before that can be presented to voters. And now you’re getting pretty close to that election redzone.”
The other two scenarios are more complicated, because it’s not clear what threshold Kenney might need to reach in order to retain the support of his caucus.
In November 2009, Ed Stelmach won the confidence of the Progressive Conservatives — a UCP precursor — with 77 per cent support. He was gone two years later. Then, in November 2013, Alison Redford won with the exact same percentage — she was gone by March 2014. In both instances, there were questions about their leadership of the party.
“For a long time, the minimum bar was 77 per cent. Now, if Jason Kenney got 77 per cent in this vote, I would say that’s winning big and I think a lot of folks would agree with me on that,” said Solberg.
Harrison argued the context for these reviews was totally different, because it’s a huge pool of voters.
“This should not in any way be compared to a leadership review where 2,000 party faithful file into a hotel ballroom, pay their fee to go to an event and render their verdict on the leader,” said Harrison. “So I think the result, whatever it is, has to be interpreted in that context.”
Kenney has been reluctant to put a number on the threshold he’s hoping to reach. In a recent interview with the National Post, he said he wouldn’t give an “arbitrary figure,” and noted the UCP constitution sets 50 plus one as the threshold that needs to be cleared.
Fifty plus one, said Vitor Marciano, a long-time conservative strategist, spokesman for Brian Jean and vocal Kenney critic, is “not a survivable number.”
Kenney’s opponents are absolutely convinced the premier isn’t going to win big. there are no exit polls, no way of knowing who has voted and who hasn’t.
“We’re all flying a little blind,” said Harrison.
Marciano said the math simply isn’t on Kenney’s side, with so many of the party’s members in rural areas.
“If he actually legitimately got a really big number, the MLAs would fall into line, but it’s not going to happen. That’s just not available to him.”
Kenney’s supporters believe there’s big support for his leadership, thanks in large part to the balanced budget, new investment and the end of COVID-19 measures.
“They’re not the ones holding press conferences on the steps of the (legislature) and making wild allegations that aren’t true and phoning journalists complaining about things. They’re the ones who are living their lives,” said Harrison.
If he wins small, then it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.
If he wins in that 51 to 60 bracket, even 65, I believe that the party will implode
Zane Novak, Take Back Alberta
“If he wins in that 51 to 60 bracket, even 65, I believe that the party will implode,” said Novak. Even beyond continued internecine fighting, Novak suggested in a year’s time, conservative voters might simply stay home, rather than vote for Kenney.
But, said Solberg, at the end of the day, there’s an election next year, and members of the legislature — not to mention the party faithful — have to think about what will give them a shot at winning.
“If he comes in around, say 65 per cent, for most of the MLAs that have been rabble rousing, I think they would look at that number and say, ‘You know, that’s a pretty solid demonstration of support,’” said Solberg.
Kenney has said he’ll leave if he loses, without a fuss. The same standard should apply if he wins, said Harrison.
“He’ll respect the results if it doesn’t go his way. But by the same token, if it does go his way, he expects the same respect to be shown to that result from, certainly, members of his caucus,” said Harrison. “He’ll want to offer some of these folks … a chance to say, ‘look, you may not like me personally, but look, the members have spoken.’”
What will matter beyond just the vote is what Kenney does on May 19, there could be a shuffling of the deck, and what his caucus does, whether the vast majority stand with him, or a significant number of them abandon the UCP to sit as independents.
“It’s possible that he looks at the crew around him and who is still supporting him on May 19 and says, ‘you know, I may have 51 per cent but I don’t have my caucus, and if I don’t have my caucus, I don’t have the legislature,’” said Solberg.
“At that point, it’s, you know, you step down, or you test the confidence (of the legislature) and you could see an election.”