Premier Jason Kenney delivered a message of economic hope to party members at the first in-person UCP AGM since 2019.
Kenney acknowledged the hardships of the Covid pandemic and disagreements over public health restrictions but denied major internal rifts in the party while making a plea for unity.
“Alberta is back, Alberta is rising, Alberta is on a roll,” Kenney said.
While past UCP conventions have typically been met with protests, such as from those in the labour movement, anti-vaccine protesters rallied outside this year’s AGM.
Kenney spoke to the challenges of leading the province during the pandemic, saying in Saturday’s speech he didn’t care about the political consequences.
“If we had not made tough decisions, for example, in September, there is absolutely no doubt that we would have exceeded the total possible capacity of our hospitals to provide critical care,” Kenney said. “I was days away from having to authorize critical care triage protocols. Bluntly, that means pulling life support from some people and denying life-saving care to others. The very thought of that filled me with dread.”
Conscience rights motion passes, higher threshold for leadership defeated
A highly anticipated motion to raise the threshold for a leadership review from one-quarter of constituency associations to one-third — seen by many as an attempt to stave off challenges to Kenney’s leadership — was defeated after failing to secure 75 per cent support among delegates.
But the party did not debate a motion calling for an early leadership review. Instead, Kenney is slated to face a leadership review in April.
On Friday, Alberta’s chief electoral officer Glen Resler issued two information bulletins in response to inquiries from Independent MLA Todd Loewen and NDP MLA Thomas Dang. Both wrote to Resler following allegations by UCP MLA Peter Guthrie that members of the premier’s office worked with Political Action Committees to cover convention fees and party membership costs ahead of the UCP AGM in order to stack the convention with pro-Kenney members.
Resler said third-party advertisers, or PACs, are allowed to pay registration fees for people other than party executives or organizers.
Resler also issued a second interim bulletin on party membership fees — with guidance scheduled to change if Bill 81, Election Statutes Amendment Act 2021 (No. 2), passes. As it stands, people can only buy memberships for themselves.
Meanwhile, UCP membership voted in favour of a motion affirming conscience rights for health-care providers at the weekend meeting. UCP MLAs Dan Williams and Joseph Schow spoke to the motion after Williams’ private member’s Bill 207, Conscience Rights Act for Healthcare Workers, was struck down in 2019 by an all-party committee. The bill would have allowed health-care workers to refuse to provide a service that went against their religious beliefs, such as medical assistance in dying.
Challengers waiting in the wings
Kenney acknowledged that support for him amongst party members was not unanimous.
“I know that many of you are angry with me,” Kenney said.
Among the openly hostile was former Wildrose leader and UCP co-founder Brian Jean, who attended the convention in Calgary. Jean is seeking the party’s nomination for Fort McMurray—Lac La Biche and intends to challenge Kenney for the leadership of the party.
Another former Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith, spoke to a panel on the Western Standard’s Uncensored program where she said she would run for leadership if Kenney was no longer at the helm.
“I would feel like that if the position was open, I would have to run,” Smith said on Saturday. “I believe in unity and this is the real issue, so let’s throw some names on the table because there are some good cabinet ministers.”
Smith also named Uncensored panelist and former MLA Rob Anderson; current ministers Jason Nixon, Doug Schweitzer and Kaycee Madu; former minister and current MLA Leela Aheer; former federal Conservative interim leader Rona Ambrose; and current MP Michelle Rempel as potential Kenney replacements. Smith said a race with 10 strong leadership candidates would rejuvenate the party and build the party’s membership heading into the next election, but she warned a Jean-led UCP would likely lose to a Rachel Notley-led NDP in 2023.
Kenney told reporters on Sunday there are no wide rifts in the party.
“It’s easy to criticize,” Kenney said. “It’s a lot harder to lead.”