Alberta Premier Jason Kenney acknowledged in his address to the United Conservative Party’s annual general meeting on Saturday that there is discord and unhappiness with his leadership, but he urged members to resolve their disputes internally.
In a 38-minute speech to about 1,500 party members at the Grey Eagle Resort just outside Calgary, Kenney urged them to focus their efforts on “the people’s business” until his leadership review in April.
“We have some internal differences. Every big tent political party does and always will,” he said.
“But let us address and resolve those internal differences internally, because the public wants to see parties and government focused not on internal party business but on the public’s priorities on the crisis that we are facing, on economic recovery.”
Kenney’s speech comes amid a dismal year where both his personal approval ratings and the popularity of his government have taken a slide. Multiple polls suggest the opposition NDP would form a majority government if an election were held now. A couple of members of his UCP caucus have publicly called for his resignation.
Twenty-two constituency associations, the number required under UCP rules, passed motions asking for the party to move up the date of the leadership review. A resolution to change the threshold to 29 constituency associations received only 57 per cent support in a vote Friday night. The motion required 75 per cent approval to pass.
Criticism over handling of COVID-19
Kenney has faced criticism over his decision to lift nearly all COVID-19 restrictions on July 1, and then disappearing from public view and not taking action for most of August while case numbers skyrocketed.
He has also faced backlash from his conservative base for doing too much by imposing a vaccine passport program, a province-wide mask mandate and mandatory vaccinations for the public service.
Kenney said the debate over COVID has been polarizing and acknowledged his government has made some mistakes.
“As premier, I must take responsibility for that,” he said, adding that he knows people are angry over public health restrictions.
“I get it, I really do. I hear you and I do so respectfully,” Kenney said.
“But please hear me, if we had not made tough decisions, for example in September, there is absolutely no doubt we would have exceeded the total possible capacity of our hospitals to provide critical care.”
Kenney said that at the time, Alberta was “days away” from enacting critical care triage protocols.
“The very thought of that filled me with dread,” he said.
Despite these acknowledgements of people’s discontent with his leadership, Kenney spent the majority of his address focusing on his government’s accomplishments and Alberta’s brightening economic prospects.
‘He’s lost the trust of Albertans’
Kenney’s speech was met with a number of standing ovations, including two where he asked those in attendance to show their support for farmers and health-care workers.
Brian Jean, the former Wildrose Party leader who lost the 2017 UCP leadership to Kenney, said the premier didn’t set the right tone for his speech. Although he is running to win the party nomination for the upcoming byelection in Fort McMurray-Lac la Biche, Jean is not tempering his criticism of the party’s leader.
“I think he’s confusing being a great speaker with making great decisions,” Jean said.
“I believe it comes down to trust. He’s lost the trust of caucus — many caucus members — and he’s lost the trust of Albertans,” he said.
“We don’t have time for him to play games to try to earn it back. It’s just not going to happen.”
Jean said Kenney should have been more contrite, acknowledged mistakes with his leadership and shown humility.
“I’m here to listen,” Jean said Kenney should have said. “Tell me what I need to do differently.”
Tany Yao, the UCP MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said he wanted Kenney to “acknowledge the reality that’s around him.”
“I think he needs to acknowledge that there is some discontent, and he needs to address that discontent,” Yao told reporters.
When asked if he supported Kenney, Yao paused and sighed.
“You guys are putting me in such a spot here,” he said, before being whisked away by a government press secretary.
Kenney’s speech seemed to have impressed some party members.
Debbie Overguard, from the electoral district of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, said she and her husband were happy with what the premier said in his speech.
“I didn’t necessarily question Mr. Kenney as much as I questioned the entire party,” she said.