Imagine it’s November 19, 2013, and you’re a delegate to the Alberta Progressive Conservatives’ annual general meeting in Red Deer. The big issue on the agenda is a leadership review of Premier Alison Redford, who has been labelled arrogant and dictatorial by disgruntled MLAs and whose popularity is sinking because of, among other things, her response to that year’s devastating floods.
As you enter the cavernous convention centre at the Sheraton, supporters thrust a campaign-style button into your hand that declares, “I’m with Alison.” Fellow delegates warn you that a vote against Redford will split the party and allow the Wildrose to win the next election. Redford herself is introduced like a rock star as she walks down the centre aisle lit by a spotlight. That’s followed by a video of testimonials to her leadership with photos of a compassionate Redford talking to Albertans while viewing flood devastation.
Of the almost 1,200 delegates who cast a ballot, more than 920 give Redford the thumbs up. For a premier under siege by the public and under relentless attack by the Wildrose opposition, that’s an impressive approval rate of 77 per cent.
Except that four months later Redford will announce her resignation.
Alberta’s premier was simply too divisive, too flawed, too unpopular. That 77 per cent vote was a stage-managed lie that failed to hide or counterbalance a catastrophically low 19 per cent approval rating among the general public.
At the United Conservative Party AGM last November, 1,500 members gave Jason Kenney so many standing ovations it’s a wonder they bothered to put chairs in the room. Some sported “I stand with Kenney” buttons. The man wasn’t facing a leadership review, but the warm reception did not reflect the frosty response he was suffering in public opinion polls, with a dismal approval rating pretty much the same as Redford’s.
Kenney’s critics in the UCP want the vote tabulated independently, to avoid any hint of the shenanigans of the 2017 race.
This disconnect between the party and public is why the presidents of 22 UCP constituency associations petitioned the party’s board last fall to hold a wide-open review of Kenney’s leadership. They wanted the vote held as soon as possible to give the party time to choose a new leader—should Kenney lose the vote—before the next provincial election. Not only that, they wanted the vote open to all members online, not just those who have the time and money to turn up in person for a convention-style meeting that could easily be stacked by pro-Kenney surrogates. And they demanded the results of that province-wide vote be tabulated by an independent auditing firm, to avoid any hint of the voting shenanigans that plagued the 2017 UCP leadership race.
Simply put, the disgruntled members didn’t trust Kenney and his acolytes to hold a leadership review that’s a true gauge of the party’s wishes. But after hearing the petitioners, the UCP board announced in December that the leadership review would take place at a special meeting in Red Deer on April 9, 2022, with only those members in attendance able to vote.
The disgruntled continued to grumble and the party split between those who worry Kenney’s unpopularity will lead to an NDP victory in the next election and those who worry the continued bickering in public over Kenney’s leadership will lead to an NDP victory next election.
At this point you might be wondering why you, a citizen, are being elbowed aside by members of a political party to decide whether the premier stays or goes. Welcome to the scheming world of party politics. Kenney may be premier of the province but he is also leader of the UCP. Technically speaking, Kenney is premier because he enjoys the support of a majority of MLAs in the legislative assembly who were, in turn, duly elected by the public. They are the only ones, in theory, who can turf him out.
However, Kenney was elected as UCP leader by a majority of members in an online vote in 2017 and he is at the mercy of those members. Lose a leadership review and he cannot continue as premier, even if still supported by a majority of the UCP caucus, many of whom have proven themselves the past year to be a loyal and/or weak-kneed bunch of doormats.
Kenney has maintained a stranglehold on a party he single-handedly built from old wood salvaged from the PC and Wildrose parties. You get the impression he’d rather burn down the house than let somebody else move in.
He and his supporters worry that enough rank-and-file members are as fed up with Kenney’s leadership as the general public, and that even if he doesn’t lose a wide-open leadership review he could suffer the kind of humiliating 55 per cent “majority support” that forced Ralph Klein, in 2006, to exit the premiership earlier than he wanted to.
But as Redford demonstrated—and indeed as Ed Stelmach showed in 2009 when he too garnered 77 per cent support in a convention leadership vote but resigned 14 months later—uneasy lies the head that wins a farcical leadership review.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.