The rebellion that now has United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney looking as if his career is on the ropes is strongly reminiscent of the circumstances that brought Progressive Conservative Party premier Alison Redford’s political career to an end in 2014.
Ironically, both feature the Sky Palace as a powerful symbol of a premier’s arrogance, entitlement and disconnection from the lives of ordinary Albertans, not to mention the electoral fears of their own MLAs.
Both started in the populist wing of the province’s conservative movement, which found expression in Redford’s day as the Wildrose Party, an entity that had a real chance to grab power, and is driven today by a sub-group of former Wildrose MLAs in Kenney’s not-very-United Conservative Party.
Kenney’s news conference yesterday, ostensibly called to announce a referendum on Canada’s constitutionally entrenched equalization system and to serve as a platform for a quick apology for the premier’s boozy pandemic patio dinner last week, reminded me of Redford’s last efforts to change the channel on the scandals that engulfed her premiership.
To give Redford her due, though, at her news conference on March 11, 2014, eight days before she said she was resigning, she announced something of real substance — a $600-million light-rapid transit extension for Edmonton.
The referendum announced by Kenney is essentially a meaningless stunt, originally conceived as a way to motivate the UCP base in Calgary to come out and vote against Mayor Naheed Nenshi in the Oct. 18 municipal election. With Nenshi no longer in the running and Kenney suffering a serious crisis of his own making, it was ready to stand in as a distraction to deflect some of the heat.
There was a whiff of panic both times as a governing Conservative party with a comfortable majority came to terms with what it could do about a problem premier who polling indicated threatened their comfortable future.
But as Redford discovered and Kenney may be learning, changing the channel is not easy to do when significant parts of your own caucus have decided you may be a mortal threat to their political survival.
So yesterday, Kenney touted the referendum as a way for Albertans to “finally get a chance to tell the federal government that they’ve had enough of the unfair equalization program.” He forgot to mention he was part of the Conservative federal cabinet that cooked up and passed the current equalization formula.
He also tried to make the case that the referendum could result in real constitutional change. Experts contacted by the CBC dismissed this as nonsense, suggesting the referendum has zero chance of influencing meaningful change.
Nor does it speak well for the premier’s circumstances that he and Justice Minister Kaycee Madu had to rely for news conference backup on a couple of lightweight backbenchers who served on his so-called “fair deal” panel last year.
Tany Yao, MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, is best known nowadays for his mid-pandemic winter holiday in Mexico, where he apparently turned off his mobile phone and didn’t notice the premier’s orders for him to report back to Alberta. Banff-Kananaskis MLA Miranda Rosin is renowned for declaring the pandemic over in November 2020 in a mail-out to constituents.
As for the apology for the Sky Palace patio party, during which Kenney did admit that he and the three senior ministers at the event atop the Sky Palace broke some COVID-19 restrictions, the tone was perfunctory, the apology had that no-apology quality, and the time devoted to it was short, less than four minutes.
“For the past 16 months I have tried hard to observe the public health rules,” the premier said. “I thought it’s important for me to lead by example. But I have to admit, I haven’t always done that, perfectly.”
“I regret the perception this has created,” he said (emphasis added). “Quite frankly, when somebody said, ‘Are you sure you should you be doing this, this was in public view,’ my response was, ‘Yes! We’re allowed to follow the rules’…”
But, he said later, “we have to set a higher example, a higher threshold of conduct, and so I want sincerely to apologize to my colleagues and to Albertans for letting you down.”
“I sincerely regret the decision that we made,” he went on, adding with a little smirk, “I just won’t be doing any social gatherings until we get into Phase 3…”
All the while, there were a few reporters waiting on the line, loaded for bear and not much interested in asking questions about the referendum scheme.
Questions begin at 21:50 in the YouTube recording, and the grilling Kenney received is telling.
A question asked by Dean Bennett of the Canadian Press, the reporter who coined the name Sky Palace back when it was to be a private residence for Redford, illustrates the mood of the press gallery: “You were gaslighting, premier. You did it, and now, you’re going to apologize today, not because it’s wrong but because you’re facing a mini revolt in your cabinet and caucus. Is that true, sir?”
Kenney said it wasn’t.
Former Wildrose leader returns to the fray, assails premier
Also yesterday, former Wildrose leader Brian Jean stepped back into the fray, shouting in ALL-CAPS in a Facebook post that “for the good of the UCP, for the good of Alberta, it is time for Jason Kenney to resign.”
It’s hard to agree with everything Jean had to say, especially his hyperbolic predictions of catastrophe for Alberta if the NDP led by Opposition Leader Rachel Notley returns to power, but he got this part right: “This government likes to fight too much. Too often they are fighting Albertans for no reason other than the government’s poor attitude.
“The Premier seems to think that everyone who isn’t 100% loyal to Jason Kenney is an enemy of this government. This brutal attitude has migrated its way into the political staff who still support Kenney and many of his ministers. It leaves you with the impression that many people at the top levels of this government don’t actually like Albertans.”
Jean said he recently commissioned a poll that “shows that the NDP would win a resounding majority government if an election were held right now. They would win all the seats in Edmonton and area, they would win all but a handful of seats in Calgary and they would split the rest of the province with the UCP.”
Referendum call — good for the gander, why not for the goose?
Meanwhile, Edmonton public school board trustee Michael Janz, now a candidate for Edmonton city council in Ward papastew, had some fun with the premier’s referendum scheme.
In a news release sent to media last night, Janz said he will introduce a motion calling on Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson to add two plebiscite questions to the ballot in the Edmonton municipal and Senate elections.
One would ask Edmontonians if they think the province should eliminate its education funding equalization formula, which results in fewer dollars going to Edmonton students.
The other would give the city’s voters the opportunity to reject the province’s controversial kindergarten-to-Grade 6 curriculum and demand a rewrite.
“We’re not asking for a special deal, just a fair deal,” Janz said, mimicking the premier’s pitch. “Jason Kenney’s equalization program is not fair for children. Despite their promise to maintain or increase funding for education, they have instead introduced a new formula that punishes growing Edmonton schools. We expect 2,700 new students next year without one additional dollar to educate them.”
“School boards across Alberta have refused to pilot the draft K-6 curriculum, but the minister remains intent on implementation,” he added. “Edmontonians will finally have the opportunity to be heard.”
Janz will give notice of his motion at today’s school board meeting.
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.
Image credit: Chris Schwarz/Government of Alberta/Flickr