He is a one-man minefield—set to explode whenever Premier Jason Kenney makes a misstep. And there’s not much Kenney can do to defuse him. Say hello to Drew Barnes, United Conservative MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat.
Barnes is that most frightening of spectres to an Alberta Conservative premier: a maverick MLA who is loudly and fearlessly more conservative than the premier. Not only that, Barnes is a politician scorned who has an axe to grind.
Barnes was finance critic when Kenney’s UCP was in opposition and he expected to be made finance minister when the UCP formed government in 2019. Instead he was ignominiously relegated to the backbenches. That’s when the axe grinding began. Barnes has criticized Kenney and/or the UCP government for a litany of issues, including the initial roll-out of the COVID-19 vaccines, salaries for Kenney’s office staff, the centralization of dispatchers for local emergency medical services and the ballooning size of Alberta’s debt.
As one of three UCP MLAs on Kenney’s Fair Deal panel, Barnes wrote a minority report saying the panel’s recommendations for a provincial police force, an end to equalization and a referendum to pull Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan didn’t go far enough. He added that he’s not a separatist, but it apparently wouldn’t take much for him to become one: “We should be clear with Ottawa and the other provinces that if the people of Alberta vote for a fair deal of constitutional equality within confederation, but these proposals are rejected, Albertans will be given the opportunity to vote on their independence.”
The outspoken MLA is a thorn in the side of the notoriously thin-skinned Kenney—but Kenney dare not perform a thorn-ectomy. Barnes represents not just the people of Cypress-Medicine Hat but also the army of Alberta’s right-wing conservatives who voted for the UCP in 2019 but are increasingly frustrated with Kenney. They think he went too far in his fight against COVID-19 but isn’t fighting hard enough against the federal Liberals. They see separation as a legitimate goal and bristle when Kenney calls it a “ridiculous concept.”
In explaining his kid-gloves treatment of Barnes, Kenney has repeatedly said Barnes has the right to speak his mind. But for Kenney this is less a matter of free speech and more a matter of keeping his enemies closer. In Alberta politics, Conservative governments have proven to be more vulnerable from outraged conservatives than from outraged New Democrats or Liberals.
The outspoken Medicine Hat MLA is a thorn in the side of the notoriously thin-skinned Kenney−but the premier dare not perform a thorn-ectomy.
Two decades ago half a dozen PC backbenchers called themselves the “Deep Six” and acted as self-appointed watchdogs on government spending. Ralph Klein didn’t punish them but monitored their activities and eventually elevated five of them to cabinet. One, Ed Stelmach, would succeed Klein as premier.
But Stelmach’s more centrist politics, including proposing to raise oil and gas royalties, alienated many conservatives and created a split in his Progressive Conservative party that sparked massive support for the more extreme Wildrose Party. In 2014 then-premier Jim Prentice tried to heal the conservative split by orchestrating a floor crossing of nine Wildrose MLAs to the PC caucus. It backfired spectacularly and opened a larger chasm between PCs and Wildrosers that split the conservative vote in the 2015 election and helped the NDP form government.
One of those Wildrose MLAs who rejected Prentice’s siren call was Drew Barnes.
In 2017 Jason Kenney skilfully bridged the divide by forming the UCP. He’s been holding the disparate pieces together, ever conscious of his fragile right flank, much of it in rural Alberta. This is in part why he was so reluctant to impose province-wide COVID restrictions for much of 2020, why he defended anti-mask rallies as a constitutionally protected right, and why he fast-tracked quarantines for Albertans returning from international travel. He was pandering to his more conservative base, to people like Drew Barnes.
Ever ambitious, Barnes lobbied Kenney in December to create a ministry of autonomy and make him minister. In other words: Minister of Disgruntled Conservatives. Kenney never responded.
Barnes believes the conservative split is growing once again, with supporters moving to the Wildrose Independence Party. “A lot of Albertans want their voices heard,” he said in an interview. “It’s up to Premier Kenney and cabinet to take those voices and move things in a direction that people can live with.”
If that doesn’t happen to Barnes’s satisfaction, would he throw his support to the Wildrose Independence Party? “At this point in time I’m not making any of those decisions,” he said with a laugh, managing to duck the question. For now, the one-man minefield prefers to explode regularly inside the UCP tent as Kenney stoically absorbs the damage, realizing Barnes could do much more harm if he were to start exploding outside.
Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.