Calgary Sun political columnist Rick Bell. Credit: David Climenhaga / AlbertaPolitics.ca

Et tu, Brute? 

Was political columnist Rick Bell’s news conference question yesterday about allegations of cash being funnelled from political action committees to Jason Kenney’s supporters in advance of this weekend’s United Conservative Party annual general meeting a sign the end is near for Alberta’s increasingly unpopular premier?

Or was it, and the sharp response it drew from Kenney, just the end of one of Alberta’s longer-running politico-journalistic bromances? 

Either way, the sharp exchange between the premier and the long-simpatico Postmedia columnist sparked a buzz in political circles already fascinated by the spectacle of Kenney’s intramural troubles with UCP rebels who have come to view him as the biggest threat to their own political survival.

The brouhaha threatens to boil over at this weekend’s UCP annual general meeting. Twenty-two UCP constituency association boards have voted to force an early leadership review on Kenney — enough to make it happen under the party’s current rules. The premier’s allies are scrambling to come up with procedural manoeuvres to block them. Tempers are rising. 

Tuesday morning, in the midst of this, Bell published a column on Airdrie-Cochrane UCP MLA Peter Guthrie’s complaints about the premier. 

Guthrie, one of numerous rural Conservative MLAs with a history of opposition to measures to control the spread of COVID-19, wrote a letter to the UCP legislature caucus asserting “we may be at a point where this party cannot be salvaged.”

Guthrie is said to have written that he had heard from “multiple direct sources” that PACs supporting Kenney offered to pay member fees and provide other favours in exchange for votes at the AGM. “Those involved in the scheme include staff from your office (using taxpayer dollars), as well as the party and even MLAs,” the letter is reported to have said.

First mentioned by a right-wing online publication, the letter might not have been that much of a news flash had Bell not decided to write about it in the Calgary Sun, still a favoured news source for the UCP base. 

Bell relayed Guthrie’s call for an independent investigation of the financial shenanigans, then telegraphed his next move. “You can be certain Kenney will be asked about these allegations on Wednesday,” he vowed. “He will be given an opportunity to clear the air. Talking points emailed from his office will not suffice.”

Well, given that warning, Kenney obviously had time to prepare for the moment, which came yesterday at a news conference about announcing government funds for homeless housing in Edmonton. Bell asked:

“D’you ever sit back at 3 o’clock in the morning and think, ‘Maybe there’s something I should do?’ That this is a symptom of something wrong in your government? Do you ever think that? Because a lot of people ask me that.” 

Obviously annoyed, Kenney churlishly replied: “Well, Rick, what I focus on is the priority of Albertans, of getting the job done.” He then launched into a list of jobs and economic benefits he claims are coming the province’s way. 

“Last week, I don’t know if you wrote a column about this, Rick, because, maybe it’s just too fun and easy just to write about, um, people who are angry with the government over COVID policy. I know you’ve been doin’ that for a couple of years. Good for you. 

“But I would challenge you, maybe, to find space, I dunno, a paragraph, about one of the biggest weeks in the history of the Alberta economy,” he continued, sarcastically, coughing frequently. 

“I know it’s a small deal, $7-billion dollars in new investment last week … Those are the issues that I stay up at 3 in the morning focussing on and thinking about.”

At this point, staff minions could be heard loudly applauding the premier’s quarrelsome counter-check. He flashed them a momentary shaka sign, presumably to indicate his approval. 

Those who want to watch the exchange will have to rely on clips posted by news reporters since, unusually for the UCP, the entire news conference was not published on the government’s web site. If you do, it’s important to remember the jobs and investments described by the premier are only announcements at this point, promises that may not be kept. 

Regardless of that, the bloom, obviously, is off the rose. One tweet compared the exchange between the premier and the Dinger to “a married couple fight … right before the divorce lawyers get called.”

Bell responded last night on Twitter, promising to deliver a riposte in his next column this morning. Kenney, presumably, need no longer wonder for whom the Bell tolls … 

Meanwhile, noting that today is the second anniversary of the firing of Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson in the midst of a probe into illegal spending in Kenney’s leadership campaign, NDP ethics critic Thomas Dang yesterday wrote Chief Electoral Officer Glen Resler demanding an investigation. 

Dang’s letter states that since the UCP is charging $349 for members and $149 for youth members to attend the AGM, any fees paid by a third-party PAC could violate the Elections Finance Contributions Disclosure Act. “Funnelling money from a PAC into a registered political party is illegal,” he said in a news release.

For his part, Kenney told yesterday’s news conference the payments are legal.

David J. Climenhaga

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 with the Globe...