Almost no one expected Devin Dreeshen to resign from Jason Kenney’s cabinet Friday morning.
The thirty-something minister of agriculture may have been mired in a messy scandal stemming from allegations made in a wrongful dismissal lawsuit by a former United Conservative Party political staffer, and facing public accusations of drunken and bullying behaviour in his office as a result, but his position nevertheless seemed secure.
Dreeshen himself clearly thought he was going to get away with it.
On Monday, he published a smirking office photo on his Facebook page, sitting at a computer that was perched atop a Styrofoam beer cooler propped up by drink coasters, with what appeared to be a bottle of Irish whiskey peeking from the drawer of a nearby credenza.
On Wednesday, Premier Kenney blew off reporters’ questions about Dreeshen’s drinking during a news conference on another topic. His intent was clearly to imply that since Dreeshen and Ariella Kimmel were once in a personal relationship, the serious allegations about Dreeshen’s behaviour in her statement of claim were just another he said/she said story.
“When it comes to individual, personal relationships, those are things that I don’t comment on,” Kenney said.
The premier likely also felt a debt to Dreeshen, who is said to have raised a significant part of the respectable contributions to the UCP’s coffers in the third quarter of 2021.
So confident were government office staffers that it would hardly be a surprise if they’d had an office pool on when the story would fade away and media and the opposition would move on to talking about something else.
So it came as a shocker Friday when Dreeshen published a statement on Facebook saying:
“This morning, I offered Premier Jason Kenney my resignation as Minister of Agriculture and Forestry and he has accepted.
“I accept that my personal conduct with regards to alcohol has become an issue for the government as a whole,” the statement continued. “I deeply regret that this is the case, but have decided that it is best for both myself and the province to resign my position and focus on my personal health and wellness.”
Even Friday, though, Kenney appeared to still be defending Dreeshen’s office tippling — telling the CBC that he’d once had a drink in Dreeshen’s office and arguing it is socially acceptable for politicians to serve alcohol to visitors in their workplaces. “Political life is a very social activity,” he explained.
There’s been a lot of public attention paid to the former minister’s drinking habits over the past few days, so perhaps his statement of concern about his alcohol consumption and its impact on his health is sincere.
That said, it seems out of character with what we know about the young conservative movement activist famously photographed in a red MAGA hat, drink in hand, toasting Donald Trump’s election victory in New York five years ago next Monday.
When journalists asked Kenney about Dreeshen’s MAGA views the summer before the 2019 Alberta election, he defended the future MLA’s volunteer work for Trump. “I think it’s actually helpful to have in our caucus an MLA who can get people on the phone in the U.S. administration, who knows some of them and has worked with some of them,” Kenney said.
So if Dreeshen felt safe from consequences, his experience backed him up.
But if Kenney was not inclined to do anything about Dreeshen’s behaviour, and Dreeshen himself was disinclined to see it as a problem, what happened between the first half of last week and Friday morning to change Dreeshen’s mind?
The sudden change suggests cooler heads within the UCP caucus looked at the way this was going to play in Ponoka, Provost and Pincher Creek and decided to stage an intervention with the premier, whose own position is precarious and insist that the errant minister needed to be somewhere he would attract less lightning.
To wit: deep in the party’s backbenches as MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, where he can maintain a low profile at least until the party’s current case of blunderrhea clears up and its polling improves.
There are certainly still a few members of the Conservative movement in Alberta who recall Ralph Klein’s apology in 2001 after that premier’s drunken 1 a.m. visit to an Edmonton homeless shelter where he said to have shouted at residents to find jobs and tossed money on the floor.
Klein quickly apologized and vowed to go on the wagon. Whether he actually did stop drinking or just kept his bad habit to private venues remains a matter of dispute.
What is not controversial is how quickly media and Conservative supporters forgave him for his sins.
That may or may not happen in Dreeshen’s case — depending on how messy the process of resolving Kimmel’s suit turns out to be.