Kenney to step down after slim majority of UCP members approve of premier’s performance
Premier Jason Kenney announced he will step down as leader of the UCP after receiving 51.4 per cent support among his party members at a leadership review vote.
Following months of questions surrounding his leadership, including those among both MLAs in his caucus and grassroots members of the party, Kenney won his sought-after majority vote, but he said the result was not enough.
“It clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader,” said Kenney after the result was announced.
Returning officer Rick Orman and UCP president Cynthia Moore made the announcement. Orman announced there were 34,298 votes cast: 17,638 yes and 16,660 no votes.
Moore opened with an overview of the voting process amid allegations of cheating. Despite a surge in membership purchases, roughly half of the UCP’s approximately 60,000 members cast a ballot.
In his speech, Kenney called on party members to accept the result of the vote and unite as a party — without him at the helm. As faint chants of “Jason! Jason!” rang through the hall, Kenney said it’s time for the party to move forward following a “deeply divisive” two years.
“I’m sorry, but friends, I truly believe that we need to move forward united,” said Kenney. “We need to put the past behind us. And our members — a large number of our members — have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”
This morning, the UCP caucus is set to hold a meeting in Calgary. It could select an interim leader, who would then be sworn in as premier.
A permanent leader will be chosen in September. Under the party’s constitution, it is possible for Kenney to run, although it is not yet clear whether he will stick around as an MLA. He also did not indicate on Wednesday how long he would remain party leader before officially resigning.
In a statement, NDP Leader Rachel Notley thanked Kenney “for his public service.”
“There are obviously many things about which we don’t agree, but that doesn’t negate the time and sacrifice that goes into taking on the role of premier,” she said. “The work is never easy. The days are long and often difficult, as I’m sure today is. I wish Jason the best.”
Mount Royal University political scientist Lori Williams said she did not know how Kenney could have carried on with those numbers.
“This is a very large proportion of those who actually voted who are opposed to the premier, and issues with his leadership are viscerally felt by a lot of Albertans,” Williams told AB Today.
Potential successors gear up
Brian Jean, who won in the Fort McMurray—Lac La Biche byelection with a campaign openly hostile to Kenney, has said he will seek the leadership of the party.
Kenney announced he would step down almost five years to the day that he and Jean signed an agreement to unify the former Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose parties.
“UCP members from all over Alberta have made it clear that they reject divisive and autocratic leadership,” Jean said. “They want a United Conservative Party that listens, that consults, and that thoughtfully implements practical and effective conservative policies that will benefit all Albertans.”
Danielle Smith, a former Wildrose leader who crossed the floor to join former PC Premier Jim Prentice, thanked Kenney for his leadership. She has also indicated she could launch a bid for the leadership.
“The result we have witnessed today is a truly grassroots resolution,” Smith said.
Michael Solberg, a co-owner and partner with New West Public Affairs, said in an interview with AB Today that rumours of ministers gunning to replace Kenney as interim leader were swirling, with others from inside and outside the caucus mulling a run in September’s leadership race.
“We’d see, probably people from the federal Conservative Party put their names forward, Alberta-based MPs, you can see business people,” Solberg said. “I mean, the leader of the UCP is a huge prize. It’s flush with money, has an extremely well-organized membership and well-mobilized memberships. And at this very moment, it’s the governing party, and whoever is elected as leader, by default becomes premier. So I think we’ll see a very competitive race.”
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Service Alberta Minister Nate Glubish, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, Transportation Minister Rajan Sawhney, Municipal Affairs Minister Ric McIver, Energy Minister Sonya Savage and UCP caucus chair Nathan Neudorf have all been floated as potential interim leaders.
Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer and Finance Minister Travis Toews are considered potential candidates for a long-term replacement.
Contentious voting process
The vote itself was not without controversy. Some constituency association presidents pushed for in-person votes to be held in every riding and for a vote to be held earlier in the year.
The party brass initially picked an in-person special general meeting to be held in Red Deer on April 9 — an earlier timeline than the autumn annual general meeting originally required by party rules — which Kenney agreed to in late 2021 as his leadership was under fire.
But when 15,000 members registered — triple the venue’s capacity — the executive made the decision to hold a vote through mail-in ballots. Only those who were members by the time the SGM was supposed to be held were eligible to vote, angering some who wanted to renew memberships or purchase new ones but didn’t think they could make it to Red Deer.
To ensure the vote’s legitimacy, the UCP hired third-party firm Deloitte Canada to oversee the validation of ballots and live-streamed the ballot verification process. But Elections Alberta is reportedly investigating allegations that party memberships were purchased in bulk, something that would violate election financing laws.
While Jean lodged a complaint with Elections Alberta, alleging a handful of credit cards were used to purchase 4,619 memberships, he told reporters earlier this month he has not received confirmation of an investigation.
Nomination races to kick off
With a year until the fixed general election date of May 2023, the NDP have been lining their candidates up in nominations, but aside from a handful of loyalists who were acclaimed, the UCP has held off on nomination races.
Chestermere—Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer registered as a nomination contestant in January, but the contest has yet to have a date set. Her constituency association board was replaced with Kenney sympathizers, and Chantelle De Jonge registered in May 2021 as a challenger to Aheer.
Solberg said with the leadership review in the rear view mirror, the party will turn its focus to the 2023 election, eager to nominate candidates and build up the war chest against the well-organized NDP, which is seeking to take back the government.
Williams said there was little desire to keep Kenney at the helm amongst the general population, even amongst typical UCP voters. She cited a recent Common Ground survey that found 60 per cent of Albertans, and 56.5 per cent of UCP voters, thought Kenney should go.