By Luis Armando Sanchez Diaz, May 31 2021—
The United Conservative Party (UCP) has faced a significant and surprising wave of criticism by fellow backbenchers prompting doubts about its standing in the Albertan political sphere and its political viability in the years to come. The UCP lead by Jason Kenny — incumbent first minister of Alberta and former federal cabinet minister — is facing the toughest political battle of its very short existence, putting the party on the brink of not only losing the next provincial election in 2023 to Rachel Notley’s NDP, but also its status as Alberta’s dominating conservative party.
It all derived after Kenny’s government enacted new COVID-19 restrictions due to the exponential increase of infected people with coronavirus in the province — Alberta reported more than 2,400 cases on May 1 alone, according to data gathered by the COVID-19 Tracker Canada website. The province’s new measures were announced by the premier himself in a televised message in which he urged all Albertans to abide by the new rules to reduce the virus transmission that, if not controlled, could overwhelm the healthcare system. Many immediately pointed out that should Kenny have listened to health experts and delayed the reopening of the province after the second wave at the beginning of last December, the new surge in cases would’ve been avoidable.
One day after the announcement, 16 UCP members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta (MLA) signed an open letter to Albertans where they stated their discontent and opposition to the new restrictions. They expressed their opinion on the new measures which they thought would “move [the] province backwards,” and that it was “the wrong decision.” In the same letter, the conservative politicians mentioned that their concerns have always been the “health and safety of [the] most vulnerable,” being a direct contradiction with their opposing views to the new health restrictions which had the aim of protecting the wellbeing, safety and health of all Albertans — including theirs and those in the communities that they represent.
On May 12 the dissension intensified when Todd Loewen, UCP caucus chair, stepped down from his role and raised concerns about Kenny’s leadership. In a letter, Loewen stated that the premier no longer had the backing of UCP supporters and said that “they have abandoned you specifically,” and expressed that his government no longer had the trust of Albertans. Loewen went even further and asked Kenny to resign, so he and other conservatives “can begin to put the province back together again.” The comments from the now-former UCP caucus chair were followed by the support from MLA Dave Hanson through a Facebook post and potentially from others within the UCP who decided not to make it public — making it difficult to see how fractured the party is.
However, it can be assumed that either a plurality or a majority of the members of caucus were against those comments as the UCP decided to vote in favour of expelling Loewen and MLA Drew Barnes — one of the 16 MLAs that signed the letter opposing the new health restrictions imposed by Kenny’s government — from caucus. Both MLAs are now sitting in the chamber as independents. It is not public which MLAs supported their colleagues since it was made through a vote that no MLA, even the premier, knows the result of with the exception of Nick Milliken, acting UCP caucus chair. Their expulsion from the conservative caucus showed the usual measure a chief of government — provincially or federally — would take to discipline a member of their caucus and to show the commanding authority they can possess over their party’s members, especially those that are not part of the government.
The future of the UCP is resting on thin ice due to the internal divisions that are arising between backbenchers and government, rural MLAs and urban MLAs, who represent constituents with very different views on many matters. From the right, Jason Kenny has to find a solution to the two visions his party represents if he wants the conservative party — the one he helped create and led into government with a majority status — to not only have a chance of remaining in power but to politically survive intact. Recent polls and projections by the 338Canada site are showing an exponential decline in voting preferences for the UCP and an increase in support for its political nemesis the NDP — leading in the popular vote and on the seat projection. Other polls are showing gains made by the conservative Wildrose Independence Party, the political cousin of the UCP but with separatist ideals and a party that could pose a threat to Kenny’s party.
Kenny’s government has the responsibility to find a way of getting Alberta out of the economic recession it is currently in by enacting feasible policies — that do exist — to diversify the province’s economy and to have the long term vision to create a sustainable economic future for all Albertans. He needs to put forward a plan that makes post-secondary education more affordable so that young Albertans, in particular, get the chance of succeeding in life and stay in Alberta. The recent budget cuts to universities across the province that his government has announced have resulted in tuition fee increases which will place a bigger burden on students as many won’t be able to afford them — as two summers have gone by without any jobs available.
On the other hand, international students — like myself — are also going to be affected by tuition increases. Maybe not right now, as the figures we have to pay are the same as our acceptance offer states. But we will certainly be affected if we want to pursue another undergraduate or graduate degree in the future, especially those that are currently thinking of enrolling at any university in Alberta — potentially opting out of studying at a high ranking university such as UCalgary due to the high costs. I urge conservative MLAs to build a plan that strives to fund post-secondary education as much as possible so Alberta becomes a North American trendsetter. A province that believes that education is a fundamental right and not a privilege and that having well-funded universities creates a more educated, skilled and equipped society that can set the foundation for a strong-productive economy.
Finally, the premier needs to stop blaming the federal government and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for everything his government does wrong or for things that it fails not to do. Albertans are not interested in seeing their government blaming the feds, they want leaders that fight for their interests and represent their values. A chinook is forming and the premier knows this as it can be seen hovering over the horizon and has the potential of melting any chance of political survival. If he fails to change course there won’t be an excuse for the downfall of the conservatives in Alberta come 2023, even if he states it was orchestrated in Ottawa.
This article is part of our Opinions section and does not necessarily reflect the views of the Gauntlet’s editorial board.