Months of simmering discontent came to a head on Thursday, when Alberta MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes were expelled from the United Conservative Party caucus.
In the aftermath, Loewen and Barnes both indicated they don’t plan on pumping the brakes on criticisms of provincial leadership anytime soon. Some, like political scientist Duane Bratt, believe more discord is inevitable — and further to that, the party may be ungovernable.
So what’s in store for Premier Jason Kenney — and will Thursday’s moves be enough to save his leadership?
On the latest episode of the West of Centre podcast, Katy Merrifield, Kenney’s former director of communications, characterized the premier as someone who “believes that MLAs should be able to speak their minds.”
“I would argue for that generosity the premier is now being punished with what I would classify as self-serving, narcissistic agendas from a few of his own caucus members,” she said.
- Listen to this week’s full episode of West of Centre here:
West of Centre52:49“It’s just a flesh wound”
Former Progressive Conservative MLA Donna Kennedy-Glans differed with that view, arguing that some of the dissent can be traced back to the very origins of the party.
“I think when you’re trying to unite the right … it’s really difficult to do,” she told the Calgary Eyeopener. “You need to figure out what it is that brings people together. We’ve never figured that out, other than beating the NDP.
“What’s the glue? I don’t think he’s found it.”
‘The pot is still boiling’
Kennedy-Glans said the party’s move to expel Loewen and Barnes would likely fail to fully quash party discontent, adding that, in her view, “the pot is still boiling.”
“It’s been churning for a long time. This is one more trigger in a series of triggers,” she said.
“The fact that this caucus meeting was leaked to the media the way it was means that no one is going to trust anything that’s said in that caucus room going forward.”
During her time as an MLA, Kennedy-Glans served in cabinet under former Alberta premier Alison Redford, who faced her own period of caucus frustration in 2014. Kennedy-Glans resigned her post that same year, citing a culture of entitlement within the party.
“I sat independent for reasons that had to do with ethics, not with Alison Redford’s leadership, so it was a very different reason for me sitting independent,” she said.
“But the whole lead-up — the churning, the distrust — there are strong similarities, yes.”
Loewen’s open letter, which called for the premier to resign, accused Kenney of fumbling key policies and strategies, such as negotiations with doctors and controversy over coal mining.
“There’s nothing new in there. It’s kind of like, the last straw letter,” Kennedy-Glans said.
“But it’s a signal to Kenney that he really does need to step into this space, and do whatever it takes to get this province back on track.”
Drawing a line in the sand
Kelly Cryderman, who covers politics for the Globe and Mail, told West of Centre it remains to be seen if expelling the two MLAs will bring down the temperature in the party.
“Does drawing a line in the sand, does that cool things down or does that further provoke MLAs who we know are there who are unhappy with the situation?” she said. “Does that further provoke them?
“And for Alberta at large, the question is, how much internal political battle and fighting, how much does that affect the ability for the UCP to govern, for the focus to be on the pandemic?”
WATCH | Barnes, Loewen speak after being expelled from UCP caucus
Merrifield, Kenney’s former director of communications, said that though two-thirds of the party’s caucus represents rural ridings, a successful UCP needs to involve both rural and urban interests.
“Has this poisoned the well? Is this going to result in further outbursts? It might,” she said. “And that unity needs to be put back on the table.
“There needs to be some thoughtful analysis and really carefully crafted next steps for the premier and his team.”
In Kennedy-Glans’ view, Kenney’s next steps need to be significant and marked, such as gathering a coalition of diverse voices like former Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney or Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
“It really does need to get fixed. This is an issue for all of us. This is beyond partisan at this stage,” she said.
“I ripped up my UCP membership a long time ago, but I hope this party steps up. This is their responsibility to speak right now.”
The coming weeks will be telling on whether Kenney’s hold on the UCP is stronger or weaker than it was before the decision to expel Loewen and Barnes, Cryderman said.
“I think he is stronger today than he was yesterday when the question of the fate of two MLAs was being decided,” she said.
“But I think that could all change next week … it’s still a political battle.”