EDMONTON—Alberta Premier Jason Kenney says he will step down after barely surviving a leadership review that has revealed the depth of division within the United Conservative Party he founded — and turned politics in the province upside down.
In a dramatic turn of events, Kenney received 51.4 per cent support in the party leadership review, the results of which were released Wednesday night in Calgary.
Moments after those results came in, he addressed the party, and acknowledged he could not remain at its helm.
“While 51 per cent of the vote passes the constitutional threshold of a majority, it clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader,” Kenney said during a short speech.
“I have informed the president of the party of my intention to step down.”
The announcement was made at Spruce Meadows, the world-class show jumping facility just outside Calgary. The mood in the room shifted quickly as Kenney conceded that the result wasn’t what he’d expected, that the party had signalled it wanted a change in leadership — and that he would give them one.
“I’m sorry, but friends, I truly believe that we need to move forward united,” said Kenney. “We need to put the past behind us and our members, a large number of our members, have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through leadership election.”
The development comes five years after Kenney returned to Alberta from the federal political stage to unite the province’s right wing, merging the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties into one, and going on to defeat the NDP in 2019 with a large majority.
Wednesday night’s news fell like an anvil, shaking even party insiders. For weeks, Kenney’s campaign team had suggested that the premier could hold on with the minimum amount required under party rules — 50 per cent plus one — even while publicly hinting at a larger win once all was said and done.
While Kenney appeared in good spirts, though those in the room seemed stunned, with some staffers brushing back tears. He stepped off the stage and was quickly surrounded by members of the audience, then whisked out the doors as quickly as he’d arrived.
Even some of those sipping drinks at the event who supported Kenney seemed to take his decision as the right one. “Are you happy now?” one person standing in the middle of the room asked his companion.
The response: “I’m pretty proud of him. He did the right thing.”
The vote capped off months of political upheaval in which Kenney has taken criticism from both ends of the political spectrum for his handling of the pandemic, his dealings with the federal government and his leadership style — said by critics within the party to be too top-down.
Perhaps unique among Canadian politicians, some of the calls for an end to Kenney’s time as premier had come from inside the house, as his pandemic response faced severe criticism from members of his own caucus. Some thought Kenney brought too many COVID-19 restrictions in, such as vaccine passports. Others said he hadn’t done enough to curb the pandemic, accusing him of underestimating the coronavirus by reopening too early in 2021 in what he had predicted would be the “best summer ever,” only to see case counts skyrocket once again.
The UCP will have to choose a new leader through an internal party election, a notoriously divisive exercise in Alberta, if past precedent is anything to go on.
Some names have been floated as potential leadership candidates already. A government source told the Star that people were lining up behind Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews, rumoured to be eyeing a leadership bid. Other names of people interested in leadership that have been floated by insiders have included Doug Schweitzer, minister of jobs, economy and innovation; Rajan Sawhney, minister of transportation; and Jason Nixon, minister of environment.
Reaction from politicians across the political spectrum came quickly Wednesday night as the news reverberated across Canada.
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Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley thanked Kenney for his service on Twitter, acknowledging, given her past tenure as Alberta’s premier, the challenges of the job.
“There are obviously many things about which we don’t agree, but that doesn’t negate the time and sacrifice that goes into taking on the role of premier,” Notley said. “The work is never easy. The days are long and often difficult, as I’m sure today is.
“I wish Jason the best,” she added.
Former British Columbia premier Christy Clark, meanwhile, posted that she was “sad tonight” watching Kenney step down.
“You always tried to do the right thing not just the popular one,” she wrote. “Canada is a better country (because) of it.”
Kenney is the latest domino to fall in the Praire province that has become known for its meat-grinder politics. Notley is the only Alberta premier to have served a full term since Ralph Klein departed in 2006. Despite an enduring popularity in some parts of the province, Klein left soon after getting just 55 per cent in a leadership review — four points higher than Kenney got Wednesday.
Klein’s successor, Ed Stelmach, resigned after criticism that he had mismanaged Alberta’s finances by running large deficits. The premier after that, Alison Redford, stepped down just a few months after getting 77 per cent in a leadership review, dogged by concerns about her spending, as epitomized by a new suite that became popularly known as the Sky Palace.
For some on Wednesday night, the conversation quickly shifted to hope that the division that has stalked Alberta’s current governing party will exit with Kenney.
“I will tell you this, that at this time, we are united in the fact that … Albertans’ priorities are the most important priorities for all of us, and we’re going to continue to make Albertans’ priorities come first,” said a visibly upset-looking Whitney Issik, who spoke briefly to reporters at an event where media were otherwise given no opportunities to ask questions.
Issik, the legislature member for Calgary-Glenmore and associate minister of status of women, said that more would be known after a caucus meeting Thursday.
She was flanked by Minster of Municipal Affairs Ric McIver, who declined to answer questions but said that things were “a little weird,” but that he was OK.
Most recent public polling data has suggested that under Kenney, the UCP had fallen behind the New Democrats, led by Notley. A ThinkHQ poll released last month found that Kenney’s approval had dipped below 30 per cent, and that the majority of Albertans — almost two-thirds — wanted the longtime politician replaced.
The vote itself has been plagued with issues. An earlier plan to have an in-person vote in Red Deer — the smaller centre halfway between Edmonton and Calgary that often serves as the symbolic centre of the province — was turfed in late March in favour of mail-in ballots.
The party said that the thousands of people who had signed up to attend in person had threatened to overwhelm voting stations, but the switch in format, which meant the final result came over a month later than originally expected, has had critics questioning the integrity of the process.
Ballots were sent out to almost 60,000 eligible party members who were asked a simple question: “Do you approve of the current leader? Yes or No?”
Kenney received 17,638 votes in favour of his leadership from UCP members and 16,660 against after more than 32,000 members submitted their votes.
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd
Kieran Leavitt is an Edmonton-based political reporter for the Toronto Star. Follow him on Twitter: @kieranleavitt
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