EDMONTON — Members of Premier Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party caucus have voted to turf two of their own for challenging the leader.
Backbencher Todd Loewen was ejected Thursday night after publicly announcing earlier in the day the party is adrift and out of touch under Kenney and that the premier must quit before things spiral further.
Backbencher Drew Barnes had been the most vocal critic of the government’s COVID-19 health restrictions, saying they are of questionable effect and an intolerable infringement on personal freedoms. He was also voted out.
“Members recognize the need for government caucus to remain strong and united behind our leader, Premier Jason Kenney, as we continue to fight through what looks to be the final stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond,” UCP whip Mike Ellis said in a statement.
“There is simply no room in our caucus for those who continually seek to divide our party and undermine government leadership, especially at this critical juncture for our province.
“We look forward to moving ahead as a stronger, more united team.”
Kenney’s spokeswoman, Jerrica Goodwin, added in a statement: “The Premier is proud to stand with his caucus colleagues and lead Alberta through the greatest health and economic crisis in a century. He looks forward to putting the COVID-19 pandemic behind us and working toward Alberta’s economic recovery.”
Loewen, representing the northern rural riding of Central Peace-Notley, had been the chair of the UCP caucus. Barnes represents Cypress-Medicine Hat in the south.
Loewen and Barnes join a third backbencher, Pat Rehn, who was expelled earlier this year after his constituents complained he wasn’t doing any work or listening to their concerns.
Weeks of bubbling internal discontent within the caucus boiled over into an open challenge by Loewen in a public letter to Kenney published on Loewen’s Facebook page in the pre-dawn hours Thursday.
In the letter, Loewen called on the premier to resign, saying he no longer sees a commitment to teamwork and party principles.
“We did not unite around blind loyalty to one man. And while you promoted unity, it is clear that unity is falling apart,” writes Loewen.
He accused Kenney and his government of weak dealings with Ottawa, ignoring caucus members, delivering contradictory messages, and botching critical issues such as negotiations with doctors and a controversy over coal mining in the Rocky Mountains.
“Many Albertans, including myself, no longer have confidence in your leadership,” Loewen says in the letter.
“I thank you for your service, but I am asking that you resign so that we can begin to put the province back together again.”
In a radio interview later in the day, Loewen said he wanted to stay in the UCP and that he was not seeking to split the party but save it from looming disaster in the next election.
“The people are upset. They are leaving the party,” Loewen told 630 CHED. “We need to do what it takes to stop the bleeding.
“We need to have our constituency associations strong. We’ve got to quit losing board members.”
Loewen later received a message of support from a second UCP backbencher, Dave Hanson.
Hanson wrote on Facebook: “Todd, I applaud your courage and stand behind your decision.
“I hear the same thing from our supporters in my area. I along with many of our colleagues share in your frustration.”
Hanson, Barnes and Loewen are three of 18 UCP backbench members who broke with the government in early April over restrictions aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19. The group said the rules were needlessly restrictive and infringed on personal freedoms. Sixteen wrote an open letter expressing those concerns.
Since then Barnes has remained vocal, actively questioning why the regulations are needed in low-infection areas and demanding to see data underlying the health decisions.
Kenney tolerated the open dissension for weeks. He has said he believes in free speech and that backbenchers are not in cabinet and don’t speak for his government. But Loewen was the first to openly challenge Kenney’s leadership.
Kenney’s poll numbers, along with party fundraising contributions, have dropped precipitously during the pandemic while those of Rachel Notley’s NDP have climbed.
Notley said regardless of Kenney’s internal political troubles, Albertans need to see him focus on governing the province.
Alberta has seen in recent weeks some of the highest COVID-19 case rates in North America that threaten to swamp the province’s health system.
“It’s not looking good,” said Notley.
“What we need as a result is for the premier to clean up his house, get his house in order and provide the kind of leadership that Albertans desperately need during one of the most challenging times in our history.”
There were rumours of a widening internal UCP breach two weeks ago when Kenney suspended the legislature’s spring sitting. He said it was to keep staff and legislature members safe from COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the government extended the hiatus for another week.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 13, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press