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18 UCP MLAs join rebellion against Alberta's effort to control COVID-19 third wave

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Alberta Premier Jason Kenney during Tuesday's COVID-19 news conference. Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

Having opted Tuesday for a return to restrictions on some business and social activities to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the face of virulent mutations of the coronavirus, Premier Jason Kenney immediately faced a full-blown rebellion yesterday by 15 members of his United Conservative caucus in the Alberta legislature, including the Speaker of the House.

A letter published on their social media accounts by the 15 MLAs, mostly rural representatives, many with ties to the Wildrose Party wing of the "United" Conservative Party, assailed the government for what it called a backward move, "a wrong decision."

A 16th UCP MLA signed the letter later yesterday, and two others published their own attacks on their party's COVID-control policies -- so that's 29 per cent of the UCP caucus!

MLAs signing the letter include Cypress-Medicine Hat's Drew Barnes, best known as an advocate of some form of Alberta independence; Red Deer-South's Jason Stephan, who defended his January 2021 vacation in Arizona by insisting international travel doesn't spread COVID if done responsibly; former cabinet minister Tracy Allard from Grande Prairie, returned to the back benches after her Hawaiian family vacation was discovered in December; and Speaker Nathan Cooper from Olds-Didsbury.

The letter accuses the party of "effectively abandoning the plan that Albertans had worked diligently over the past months to follow" -- a bit of a laugh, considering how many of these MLAs have been arguing vociferously for weeks there should be no restrictions whatsoever on their constituents' activities, with or without a deadly pandemic.

"After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans," the letter complained, "and we will continue advocating for a transparent path forward that provides certainty to Alberta families, communities and businesses."

There was no acknowledgement in the letter of the seriousness of the threat now facing Alberta, or that anything much matters except reopening businesses as quickly as possible.

Premier Kenney warned listeners during Tuesday's virtual COVID-19 news conference to expect opposition from members of his own caucus to the latest slightly tougher restrictions on social and business activities. So he obviously had a clear idea of what was coming.

This naturally prompted speculation yesterday that the letter was part of a scheme by the UCP to appeal to both camps in Alberta, those concerned by the virus who argue stronger measures would be more effective and those opposed to any restrictions whatsoever.

Anything's possible from the bunch that came up with the Alberta energy war room and its campaign to protect us from the Bigfoot Family, but it's hard to see how the UCP caucus would benefit from airing its dirty laundry in public.

It's more likely the premier was simply bowing to an unpleasant inevitability.

Perhaps he concluded the province is now so polarized -- thanks in large part to his own political tactics -- that he was going to get hammered no matter what he decided to do about COVID-19.

With even Ontario Premier Doug Ford imposing a month-long stay-at-home order in the face of rampaging variants of concern, Kenney may have decided it was less risky to let his MLAs run with their complaints than to try to muzzle them. He has until the spring of 2023 to paper over the divisions in his caucus, after all.

Still, it's hard to see how it benefits the UCP to show the public how deep the rift in its ranks is, or to tell COVID deniers, a key part of the party's base, that when it comes to the pandemic, their leaders have concluded they must always lose.

As if COVID restrictions unpopular with the party's right wing weren't enough, the premier had to know even more of his support base would be infuriated by the sight of RCMP officers and Alberta Health Services (AHS) officials fencing off GraceLife Church, where parishioners have been ignoring AHS orders for weeks and Pastor James Coates has been revelling in the public attention his defiance brought.

It's impossible to believe AHS and the RCMP struck yesterday morning without first consulting Premier Kenney's cabinet and the UCP's strategic brain trust.

Sure enough, late yesterday afternoon, Peace River MLA Dan Williams, a former Kenney aide in Ottawa who shares his boss's anti-abortion activism, published a video assailing the fencing-in of the rebel church.

Insisting "I'm not speaking here as a politician" as he paced in front of the legislature building, he said "we cannot stand by and allow churches and places of worship be treated in this manner by AHS, or any other government body."

It's also hard to believe that video was made without a nod of approval from his former Ottawa boss and mentor.

Nevertheless, these manifestations of rebellion undermine Kenney's authority.

They make him look weak. If he made the decision to allow the letter to be published, it was a blunder. If he didn't, and they went ahead anyway, it seriously undermines his authority.

Perhaps the natural state of the right in Alberta is to be divided between a far-right social conservative fringe and a true centre-right party. Instinctively, it now seems to want to return to that state.

Kenney successfully united the two largest parties of the right after the NDP victory in 2015, but he did so by driving many moderate Tories out of the old Progressive Conservative Party, and not welcoming them back to the UCP once it had also absorbed the Wildrose Party.

In the Edmonton region, those voters now seem to have settled on the NDP.

In Calgary, they opted for the UCP in 2019 -- but what they'll do in 2023 remains unknown and now may be in flux. Interestingly, none of the rebels represent Calgary city ridings, although Angela Pitt from Airdrie is close. In rural Alberta, Red Tories barely exist.

Is it possible Kenney can only save his party by driving his remaining moderate urban voters to the NDP, or by continuing to appeal to moderate voters at the cost of driving out the UCP's most determined and active supporters on the far right?

If so, he now finds himself on the horns of a dilemma.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. Click here for a list of the rebel MLAs.

Image: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr

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