Alberta Politics
Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes. Is he Commander Cero of a UCP rebellion in Alberta’s deep south? Don’t bet on it (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Distinction Rebellion? There are plenty of reasons breaking up is hard to do, so don’t expect the UCP to do it

Posted on May 20, 2020, 2:39 pm
8 mins

Is a rebellion brewing in Southern Alberta against Alberta Premier Jason Kenney among the United Conservative Party’s old Wildrose crowd?

Is there a Prairie fire smouldering in the heart of Wild Rose Country that might turn into another “upstart conservative party”?

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, as he looked in 2017 as he took the reins of the Alberta conservative movement (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

It could happen. I’m here to tell you not to bet your farm on it, though.

There’s certainly been some chatter on social media about this in the past few days, much of it focused on a couple of tweets by Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes.

In addition to having had a reputation as a loose cannon ever since he was first elected as a Wildrose MLA in 2012, Mr. Barnes is showing signs of alienation nowadays from the tight control of MLAs that characterizes Mr. Kenney’s leadership.

Alert readers will recall that the noble idea of independent MLAs accountable only to their constituents was a big part of the Wildrose pitch to a province where people like to imagine they’re rugged individualists, if not a distinct society.

Alberta NDP Opposition Leader Rachel Notley, waiting and ready to take back power if given a chance (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Never mind that letting MLAs run loose would also be something close to political suicide in practice, something an old pro like Mr. Kenney, even if he is a notorious micromanager, certainly understands.

The former Medicine Hat real estate salesman saw his ambitions of a cabinet post thwarted after the UCP came to power in April last year. Plus, he may be a little put out that the government’s now sitting on the report of the Fair Deal Panel, after he dutifully participated in its travelling roadshow and no doubt contributed a few proto-separatist observations behind closed doors.

At any rate, Mr. Barnes generated some buzz Sunday when he tweeted a link to a Global News article citing the “eye-popping” salaries paid to Mr. Kenney’s political Praetorian Guard.

Pay in the 19-member club ranged from a high of $224,137 for both the premier’s chief of staff and his principal secretary down to a “tour manager,” who at $114,556 was at the bottom of the scale. The story, by the way, was broken the day before by the Medicine Hat News.

Mr. Barnes’s following tweet quoted the Global article, quoting him, saying, “Let’s look for value. Every decision, for hard-earned tax dollars, let’s look to get that money to where it’ll do the most good.” The implication was that paying $194,540 to the likes of Matt Wolf, the premier’s “executive director of issues management,” is not putting money where it will do the most good.

Former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

This will not put Mr. Barnes in the good graces of Premier Kenney, someone for whom, like his mentor Stephen Harper, loyalty doesn’t necessarily run both ways. So rumours a cabal of rebel MLAs, possibly led by Mr. Barnes himself, plotting a UCP secession in the south were probably inevitable.

A Twitter thread on Monday by former NDP Caucus staffer Scott Harold Payne added to the buzz by arguing Mr. Barnes knew what he was doing, suggesting names of a few neighbouring MLAs who might be sympathetic, and pointing out that it’s not just MLAs whose feathers are ruffled.

Half a dozen members of the UCP’s Livingstone-Macleod Constituency Association quit a year ago in response to Mr. Kenney’s top-down leadership style and the swift demise of his so-called “grassroots guarantee” once he was leader. Those people have presumably been doing something since they resigned.

Still, a full-blown rebellion is unlikely for two reasons:

First, as the leader of a majority government with authoritarian inclinations, Mr. Kenney possesses powerful tools to humble rebels in his party’s midst. And I’m not just talking about a stern call from Stephen Harper, although I’m sure they’d get that too.

We all saw what happened to Derek Fildebrandt, a considerably bolder and more charismatic politician than Mr. Barnes or any remaining rural UCP MLA, when he crossed Mr. Kenney. He was crushed like a bug, all but reduced to blogging!

Former rising conservative star Derek Fildebrandt, who fought Mr. Kenney, and lost (Photo: David. J. Climenhaga).

The former MLA for Strathmore-Brooks and rising UCP star may have been emboldened by the fact he had gotten away with defying former Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean. He discovered to his regret that Jason Kenney is no Brian Jean.

Second, and more important in my estimation, is the terrible shock Alberta’s divided Conservatives had in 2015 when the NDP not only formed a government, but won a comfortable majority under Rachel Notley.

The trauma of May 5, 2015, caused bitterness among Wildrosers and Progressive Conservatives that was visceral at times.

Alberta Conservatives had always imagined they could afford a little rebellion to open the Overton Window further on the right. Ms. Notley proved them wrong.

So when it came time to form a united Conservative Party, many put aside their doubts to embrace the leadership of a man whose history suggested he was likely to ignore the sensibilities of Wildrosers and Red Tories alike.

They now know a significant split in their ranks could once again open a path to the NDP, still led by Ms. Notley, which nowadays looks both competent and lucky compared to the UCP in light of the terrible hand Mr. Kenney has been dealt and the ridiculous way he’s played it.

No, Mr. Kenney may irritate Mr. Barnes and some of his disaffected rural neighbours, but it’s unlikely they’ll risk a split that could boost an NDP that now knows far more about both campaigning and governing than it did in 2015.

Breaking up is always hard to do. I’d be delighted to be proved wrong, but I’m pretty sure the factions of UCP aren’t about to break up any time soon.

8 Comments to: Distinction Rebellion? There are plenty of reasons breaking up is hard to do, so don’t expect the UCP to do it

  1. Abs

    May 20th, 2020

    It would take someone far more high-profile than Drew Barnes to do such a thing.

    In the meantime, Jason Kenney will be probing passengers at Alberta’s airports for suspicious fevers. Making a move on federal turf? Perhaps he has an heir apparent waiting in the wings to continue the UCP legacy for the next 40 years when he makes his move. Rule nothing out. The route to absolute power has many twists and turns.

    Reply
  2. Scotty on Denman

    May 20th, 2020

    Historically, Albertans have been politically copacetic for the most part—until 2015, only four parties had governed in Alberta’s 110 years as a province, including the Socreds for some 32 years and the ProgCons for a whopping 44. Voter turnout has been, since such stats were kept, fairly low, another copacetic measure. But as Lougheed took his turn at jousting with Ottawa over the NEP, really the first major tussle over Alberta’s ‘second coming’— of oil, this time, not wheat or beef—the electorate’s mood began to shift, slowly enough for the PCs to hang on with Klein’s impressive four-term run, but with dwindling support and the partisan field diversifying. Lougheed recognized the radicalization of the right, calling a snap election in 1982 to foil their stirrings; nevertheless, Albertans we’re becoming less copacetic than their nature through the declining Klein, Stelmach and Redford years as the rise of the far-right Wildrose party attested. The NDP, hitherto written off as near-communistic, really came out of nowhere as conservative factions broke into open conflicts and uneasy truces (as under Prentice)—all so exactly what copacetic voters —longing for matched politics— don’t want that they elected the nominal socialists instead—to “shake things up,” it’s been said, and hopefully settle back down to copo. But for the Alberta right (and, by extension, the Canadian neo-right which is dominated by Albertans) it was shocking and the trauma still lingers even after the K-Boy returned from Ottawa after the federal CPC was defeated, regrouped the fractious Alberta right into the UCP, and beat the NDP after it’s single term in power. He hailed the NDP “nightmare” was over and Alberta bitumen would at last be allowed to prosper unfettered (from the cogent energy policy of the defeated NDP government and the free TMX pipeline courtesy Ottawa and Canadian taxpayers).

    The NDP won a majority in a five-party race of fairly typical low turnout, but the K-Boy’s party retook the mantle by winning a convincing majority, chalking up the highest turnout since Lougheed’s snap election in 82, and reducing partisan diversity back down to the more traditional two (subsequently it was reduced even further in federal seats). Surely, by those metrics, good ole copacetic times were back! That’s what Albertans like and that’s what they believed in 2019. But only because fantastic rhetoric and magic prognostications had taken the fore in what passes for political debate in the tRumpian age and in fast-changing times.

    So the question is whether shocks like the NDP upset in 2015 will rip Albertans’ partisanship away from the illusion of their traditional, politically copacetic condition, and possibly fracture the barely fledged UCP, as some indicators suggest might be possible, if not likely.

    Given the 2015 electoral shock has been followed by brimstone-haling traumas ever since—the Fort Mac wildfire, the collapse of bitumen prices, the deep federal election disappointment and, now, COVID19, the NDP upset exists now more as mythological icon followed by any narrative that casts Albertans as victims of evil conspiracies and foreign interference (to bolster the latter, the K-Boy likes to speak of Alberta as if it will separate, if it hasn’t already, from the ‘foreign interference’ of its own nation, federal magnanimity notwithstanding). One or another myth might champion the victim rhetoric, but in remains that they are all otherwise painful realities when the rhetoric is washed off. It would argue that, in such gathering storms, the HMSS UCP would be more likely to founder as a party. It is surely in a maelstrom right now, a wicked blow that might last beyond its capacity to hunker down shipshape.

    But that wouldn’t necessarily satisfy Albertans’ copacetic nature: they don’t want many parties—they aren’t sure they can tolerate as many as even two. And they don’t want, if history be a guide, to change horses every election—they’re usually copacetic with any steed that holds them in good stead along the trail—until it drops dead of old age. That would argue against any confidence-threatening schism in the UCP: it would have to lose 20 seats to fall to negotiable minority status, and more than half of those would have to commit to supporting the NDP (and the other half remain aloof) for the nominal socialists to even hope to be recognized government in the existing parliament—a most unlikely scenario. Yet that doesn’t rule out dissident UCP factionalism from sweating the premier in his hour of greatest stress in order to extract policy compromises. Question is whether that dissent champions sensible reaction to shocks and traumas accumulated over the last five years, or if it demands the K-Boy’s promised fantasy world be produced immediately to ‘prove’ his loyalty to the dream. But nothing, it would seem, will threaten the UCP government until then next election.

    In circumstances we’re able to foresee—even best-case—it’s hard to tell if Alberta’s voters will be buying that dream by then. Will they likely be or have reasonable expectation of a return to copacetic times and government in three years? I should think the NDP, which has the first viable opposition shot at replacing the government in over a generation (its couple of seats wouldn’t have been called viable prior its upset win), will be fashioning a road map back to copacetic times right about now. It is consistent with their tenacity and their record—which, in addition to their 24 seats, make them dangerous for the UCP. Doubtless the NDP will be both dismissively written-off and written into a vitriolic narrative by none other than the UCP leader who is practicing such hyperbole every day. And there’s three years to go. Can he convince that a bitumen golden age is about to resurrect? Will Albertans tire of the windmill tilting by then, and long for a quieter, steadier hand on the tiller?

    Reply
  3. Dave

    May 21st, 2020

    I agree a wide spread rebellion is unlikely, but that doesn’t mean there may not be some ongoing rumblings of discontent. Like a volcano, the rumblings may not be anything that serious, but you can’t always tell when it is.

    Mr. Kenney will probably try to supress it and may appear to be mostly successful, but the old Wildrose crowd is not easily discouraged and they have some principles they like to stick to. The resistance may become more muted or go underground.

    Mr. Fildebrandt was mostly his own worst enemy and I think in his case his ego was bigger than his principles, although he had both. Mr. Kenney did not have to actually do much to bring about Fildebrandt’s downfall. Yes he had a high profile, but perhaps someone less flamboyant would have been a more successful rebel.

    I also doubt the current rebellion or more likely just rumblings of discontent will go very far, because Kenney does have power and does not seem hesitant to use it to keep control. However, having to deal with a southern flank will only add to all the difficulties he is already facing and sure will not make life any easier for him.

    Reply
  4. Just Me

    May 21st, 2020

    Another page, but the same web-ad describing to me the places I can find “sexy single females”…I must admit that this page is getting more entertaining by the second.

    But back to the topic at hand …

    Barnes is a big mouth, mouth-breathing pinhead, but he is a harbinger of what Kenney had to dead with before the UCP won the election. While forming the new party’s policies and many conferences, Kenney was constantly telling the Wildrosers gathered that “He has the pen” in all decision-making. Meaning, if you have other ideas, go F-yourself.

    Kenney is enormously abrasive and has been throughout his career. He’s also prone to hyperbole, embellishment, falsehoods, and out right damned lying. This sort of behaviour has served Kenney well; and if things got out of hand, he could always count on Stephen Harper or Stockwell Day to save his hide. But as his position has risen with his incompetence, the micromanaging lunatic that Kenney is may find that his usual allies may not be willing to stick their heads out for him anymore.

    Today, Day laughs at all the gaffes that Kenney caused when he was leading the Canadian Alliance’s 2000 election bid. Of course, Kenney did not single-handedly wreck Day’s chances — Day was doing that every day of the campaign on his own. But it was that election’s aftermath where Kenney was on the defensive over the results. He was blaming every liberal under-the-bed for his misfortune. Kenney’s abrasiveness rivalled Ezra Levant’s temper for its toxicity. It’s apparent that Kenney doesn’t care for opposition. In fact, it drives him into a blinding rage.

    When he gets into his full angry midget mode, Kenney breaks people and things. That’s how he keeps people in line. The question is, given his amazing stream of bad luck, can Kenney’s rage remain effective? That remains to be seen.

    Reply
    • anon

      May 21st, 2020

      Dude, the pop-up ads you see have nothing to do with this site. They are customized by AI bots based on your browsing history and they follow you around the web. So you see ads for friendly and healthy babes while the UCP types of this world see pictures of dead deer so they can “masturbate joylessly.” Install an ad blocker.

      Reply
  5. Bob Raynard

    May 21st, 2020

    David, you have made a convincing case as to why discontented conservatives won’t form a rival conservative party. That does not, however, mitigate the discontent some members of the party may be feeling. Another way they could vent their frustration would be through a leadership change.

    Conservatives are probably very appreciative of how Jason Kenney worked diligently to unify their cause and lead them out of the NDP wilderness, but their appreciation could be short lived, just like Britons’ appreciation of Winston Churchill’s leading the UK through WWII didn’t last long enough for Mr. Churchill to win an election right after the war.

    UCPers have many reasons to be a bit leery about Mr. Kenney as premier. During the 2019 campaign they saw him consistently poll lower than the party itself did. All the shenanigans he pulled weaseling himself into the leader’s chair in 2018, the Orwellian disappearance of his grassroots guarantee (people flocking to the taken-down grassroots guarantee website after he vetoed the GSA policy passed at the UCP founding meeting really did remind me of the animals flocking to the barn wall to reread the founding principals in George Orwell’s 1984), and his reluctance to move away from his austerity agenda to respond to the pandemic are all reasons party members could be looking at their membership to see if a better leader could be in their midst. Now that a unified party exists, the prospect of an NDP government isn’t quite as likely. Indeed, they may be wondering if keeping Jason Kenney around is increasing the likelihood of an NDP government. And in the words of Farmer Brian, our observer from the conservative heartland of central Alberta, Jason Kenney is ‘just not that popular’.

    Your point about Derek Fildebrandt is well taken. It should be noted, however, that when Mr. Fildebrandt was defying Brian Jean, Fildebrandt was seen as a rising star, and Brian Jean’s star had already started to tarnish. As a result when Mr. Jean tried to discipline Fildebrandt, Rebel media et al rose to Fildebrandt’s defense. By comparison, when Jason Kenney dumped Fildefrandt, Fildebrandt’s star had started to tarnish from a few too many controversies, and Jason Kenney was very much in his ascendancy. It will be very interesting to see how Jason Kenney responds to Drew Barnes’ misdeeds; too harsh a punishment could indeed backfire on him.

    Reply
  6. pogo

    May 21st, 2020

    Fate forfend! Hear ye all! Even those who; so righteously, suffer so much at the plight, of those who suffer! I have taken to my studies during these woe betide days of forced reflection. In a nutshell? Jason Kenney is trying to perfect the “echo Trump”. The punch down and suck up, Trump. The pre-win Trump.. Make no mistake. He (my/your Jason) is definitely lacking any compass at all! Let alone a Canadian one! Now that’s enough of that!.. from heaven likely, my mother tells me in my dreams,, warm and welcome they are to!.. https://youtu.be/ZIwzRkjn86w?list=RDTVY8LoM47xI

    Reply
  7. Magda

    May 22nd, 2020

    The ads I see on this site tend to be car ads which is bizarre since I don’t drive anymore (mobility medical reasons) and never look at car dealership or manufacturer sites. Very odd.

    Re Fildebrandt. He was not popular with his Wildrose caucus members who were getting fed up with his showboating “look at ME! I’m a STAR!” attitude. Brian Jean got a boost of caucus support when he ejected DF and then lost it when he caved into pressure from the base and brought DF back. Brian Jean basically showed himself to be spineless and that was it for him with a lot of his caucus, even if they never told him to his face how pissed they were. Kenney bouncing DF permanently was a way of making a conciliatory gesture to the Wildrose caucus members.

    Not everything comes down to left/right differences. Most Wildrose caucus members who disliked DF agreed with him politically. They just thought he was an over-rated idiot.

    Reply

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