Simmering internal discontent within Alberta Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus has boiled over into an open challenge to his leadership.
Senior backbench member Todd Loewen, in a letter posted on Facebook early Thursday, called on Kenney to resign, saying he no longer has confidence in his leadership.
Loewen accuses Kenney and his government of weak dealings with Ottawa, ignoring caucus members, delivering contradictory messages, and botching critical issues such as negotiations with doctors and controversy over coal mining on the eastern slopes of the Rockies.
“Many Albertans, including myself, no longer have confidence in your leadership,” Loewen wrote. “I thank you for your service, but I am asking that you resign so that we can begin to put the province back together again.”
Loewen is the MLA for Central Peace-Notley, a sprawling rural riding in northern Alberta.
He was among 18 UCP backbenchers to break with Kenney’s government last month over health-care restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. They say the rules are needlessly restrictive and infringe on personal freedoms.
Kenney has tolerated the open dissension for weeks, saying he believes in free speech and that the backbenchers are not in cabinet and don’t speak for his government.
Loewen, a second-term MLA, is the first to openly break with Kenney and call on him to step down.
Loewen also said he is resigning as UCP caucus chair but said he has no intention of leaving the party.
“The caucus dysfunction we are presently experiencing is a direct result of your leadership,” he wrote.
“Albertans perceive our government as out of touch and arrogant, and they expect our caucus to bring their issues of concern to the government,” Loewen wrote.
“When the premier chooses not [to] listen to caucus, is it any wonder why the people choose to stop listening to the government?
“Our supporters and those I represent can no longer tolerate this. These folks have not abandoned the principles and values of the UCP, but they have abandoned you specifically.”
Loewen said Kenney’s track record is problematic. The government’s response “to a hostile federal government has been perceived as weak and ineffective,” he said.
“Negotiations with physicians were not handled well. The government’s actions on the eastern slopes did not align with the expectations and values of Albertans.”
For more than a year, Kenney’s government was embroiled in a dispute with physicians after unilaterally tearing up the master agreement on pay and work rules. There is no new deal in place.
Following a public outcry, the government backtracked this year after quietly revoking a 44-year-old policy that had protected the eastern slopes and summits of the Rockies from coal mines.
‘Unity is falling apart’
Kenney, a former cabinet minister in Stephen Harper’s federal Conservative government, was an architect of the merger of his Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party to form the UCP.
Loewen said he and his constituents still believe in the UCP.
“We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart.”
There were rumours of a widening UCP internal breach two weeks ago, when Kenney suspended the spring sitting of the legislature. Kenney said the move was to keep staff and legislature members safe from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the government extended the hiatus for another week.
“I don’t think [Loewen] is a person coming out on his own,” said political scientist Duane Bratt with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“Kenney’s going to have to respond.”