Alberta Premier Jason Kenney. Credit: Alberta Newsroom / Flickr Credit: Alberta Newsroom / Flickr

Presumably the risk remains small that deep-pocketed United Conservative Party activists will ever buy party memberships in the names of hundreds of random Albertans, funnel the funds to the party, and use the new “members'” stolen identities to vote for nomination candidates who meet the approval of the party’s leader.

More likely, the UCP cabinet had a more garden-variety undemocratic goal in mind when it introduced Bill 81, the Elections Statutes Amendment Act, 2021. 

To wit: stacking nomination contests to ensure candidates unquestioningly loyal to Premier Jason Kenney are chosen before the next general election over more independent-minded party members.

Still, by the standards of a normal democracy, passage by the Alberta Legislature in the wee hours yesterday of legislation that appears to attempt to legalize activities that would likely run afoul of the Criminal Code of Canada is bizarre and should be unsettling.

The new law’s most controversial provision, which would also apply to future leadership contests, would allow bulk memberships to be purchased without the consent or even the knowledge of the new “members.”

That means well-heeled donors could easily buy memberships in bulk to influence nomination battles and leadership contests with busloads of pliant supporters otherwise not active in politics. This will probably start to happen soon. 

It would also enable wealthy donors to stealthily evade other election finance laws, since the membership fees will not be applied to election spending limits, a bonus for Conservatives who were never happy about the flawed efforts of the previous NDP government to take big money out of Alberta elections. 

In addition, Bill 81 sets a U.S.-style fixed election date and changes the rules for third-party election advertisers, including an almost certainly unconstitutional provision to exclude election advertising by labour organizations. 

So maybe Independent Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, a former UCP member exiled from the party caucus by Kenney, was right when he told the Legislature that mass purchases of memberships is “the heart of what the RCMP investigation is from three years ago into this premier and his leadership.”

That prompted a Trump-like outburst from government House Leader Jason Nixon about “fake RCMP investigations,” a characterization with which the national police force may disagree. We’ll see about that one, I guess. 

Regardless, it was the bulk-membership purchase rules that led to the long night of testy debate in which three UCP MLAs — Chestermere-Strathmore MLA Leela Aheer, Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried, and Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul MLA Dave Hanson — broke ranks and voted against their own party on third reading. 

Adding a surreal quality to the late-night session, the government imposed time allocation to hurry passage of the bill, then organized its own filibuster by cabinet members to keep its own rebel MLAs from introducing new amendments while it ran out the clock. Hansen and Aheer tried and failed to amend the nomination-stacking provision. 

All this is unusual and might suggest to some the UCP is not as united a party as the government would like us to think. 

Maybe, but it would be overstating things to conclude, as some commentators did yesterday, that it means Kenney is not in firm control of his caucus. 

On the contrary, the fact the bulk of UCP members would vote for what one political scientist called “the most undemocratic thing we’ve seen in this province since Social Credit tried to end freedom of the press” suggests the caucus is firmly under the premier’s thumb and is quite willing to ignore democratic norms if that’s what the premier wants.

With the remaining exceptions of Aheer, Gotfried and Hanson — who joined with the NDP Opposition and UCP exiles Barnes and Central Peace-Notley MLA Todd Loewen to try to resist the government juggernaut in the House — it means the government caucus may now be fairly described as the United Kenney Party.

And while the three rebel UCP MLAs may still have a few silent sympathizers in the caucus, they are unlikely to succeed at winning their party’s nomination before the next election thanks to the very legislation passed yesterday morning. 

Moreover, as Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid pointed out yesterday, the debate in the Legislature provided some cover for the UCP Board’s decision to hold a leadership review vote on Kenney’s performance in April, structured to ensure the premier emerges victorious. 

The in-person-only vote won’t be held in March, as 22 constituency association boards had demanded, which would have made it easier for farmers from rebellious rural ridings to attend. And Braid suggested Bill 81 may make it easier to stack that meeting too. 

Meanwhile, former Wildrose Leader and Kenney rival Brian Jean continues to seek the UCP nomination in the still unscheduled Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche by-election. But Bill 81 will help Kenney derail his rival’s ambitions again, just as he did in 2017 when they first squared off over the leadership of the party. 

No, for the moment at least, the universe seems to be unfolding the way Kenney thinks it should. 

If Albertans want to get rid of Premier Kenney, they’re going to have to do it the old fashioned way — by voting for Rachel Notley and the NDP at the polls in a general election, presumably on May 29, 2023, as decreed by Bill 81. 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...