EDMONTON — Members of Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus have voted to turf two of their own for challenging the leader.
Backbencher Todd Loewen was ejected Thursday night after publicly announcing earlier in the day the party is adrift and out of touch under Kenney and that the premier must quit before things spiral further.
Backbencher Drew Barnes had been the most vocal critic of the government's COVID-19 health restrictions, saying they are of questionable effect and an intolerable infringement on personal freedoms. He was also voted out.
Both said they will sit in the house as Independents and continue to fight for their constituents and oppose a leader they say has lost his way and is no longer listening.
“I was delivering a message on behalf of a lot of our supporters, a lot of Albertans, a lot of UCP members and a lot of conservatives across the province,” said Loewen in an interview.
“And instead of taking ownership of the problems, the premier shot the messenger.”
Barnes, in a statement, said the grassroots-driven United Conservative party he and Kenney helped build is dead.
“The man who campaigned on servant leadership no longer exists,” said Barnes.
“Instead of MLAs representing the views of their constituents to caucus, MLAs are expected to represent the views of the premier to their constituents.
“I could never abide by this – this is not why I entered politics, and this is not how a grassroots political party is meant to work.”
Both said they were let go following a lengthy virtual caucus debate with members from both sides speaking out. Members then cast their ballots by identifying themselves and texting their vote. The voting breakdown was not announced.
Loewen questioned not having a private ballot: “I just feel there would be a certain amount of hesitancy for some people to vote against the premier on a vote like this where they know someone else will know exactly how they voted.”
Mike Ellis, the caucus whip, said it was critical for caucus to stay united behind the leader, especially as the government grapples to bring COVID-19 under control.
“There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership, especially at this critical juncture,” said Ellis in a statement.
Kenney’s spokeswoman, Jerrica Goodwin added: “The premier is proud to stand with his caucus colleagues and lead Alberta through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century.”
Loewen, representing the northern rural riding of Central Peace-Notley, had been the chair of the UCP caucus. Barnes represents Cypress-Medicine Hat in the south.
Loewen and Barnes join a third backbencher, Pat Rehn, who was expelled earlier this year after his constituents complained he wasn’t doing any work or listening to their concerns.
The vote culminated weeks of bubbling internal discontent within the caucus that boiled over into an open challenge by Loewen in a public letter to Kenney published on Loewen’s Facebook page in the pre-dawn hours Thursday.
In the letter, Loewen called on the premier to resign, saying he no longer sees a commitment to teamwork and party principles.
“We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart,” writes Loewen.
He accused 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 a controversy over coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.
“Many Albertans, including myself, no longer have confidence in your leadership," Loewen says in the letter.
“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 later received a message of support from a second UCP backbencher, Dave Hanson.
Hanson wrote on Facebook: “Todd, I applaud your courage and stand behind your decision.
“I hear the same thing from our supporters in my area. I along with many of our colleagues share in your frustration.”
Hanson, Barnes and Loewen are three of 18 UCP backbench members who broke with the government in early April over restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. The group said the rules were needlessly restrictive and infringed on personal freedoms. Sixteen wrote an open letter expressing those concerns.
Since then Barnes has remained vocal, actively questioning why the regulations are needed in low-infection areas and demanding to see data underlying the health decisions.
Kenney tolerated the open dissension for weeks. He has said he believes in free speech and that backbenchers are not in cabinet and don’t speak for his government. But Loewen was the first to openly challenge Kenney’s leadership.
Kenney’s poll numbers, along with party fundraising contributions, have dropped precipitously during the pandemic while those of Rachel Notley’s NDP have climbed.
Notley said regardless of Kenney’s internal political troubles, Albertans need to see him focus on governing the province.
Alberta has seen in recent weeks some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in North America that threaten to swamp the province’s health system.
“What we need as a result is for the premier to clean up his house, get his house in order and provide the kind of leadership that Albertans desperately need during one of the most challenging times in our history,” said Notley.
There were rumours of a widening internal UCP breach two weeks ago when Kenney suspended the legislature's spring sitting. He said it was to keep staff and legislature members safe from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the government extended the hiatus for another week.
Political scientist Duane Bratt said Kenney had little choice but to expel Loewen but noted it took several hours of debate among the caucus to get there.
“This is not a good day for Jason Kenney. He is wounded by this. And I don’t think it’s over,” said Bratt with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
Pollster Janet Brown said the open dissension magnifies Kenney’s leadership woes. Brown said a premier relies on three pillars of support: party fundraising, caucus support and support in the popularity polls. Any one of those three can help offset crises somewhere else.
But Kenney, said Brown, doesn’t have support in any area right now.
"If you’re down in the polls, if you don’t have the confidence of your caucus and your donors are keeping their hands in their pockets, what’s your justification for continuing?” said Brown.
“It seems like he’s failing with all three audiences.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press