Having opted Tuesday for a return to restrictions on some business and social activities to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the face of virulent mutations of the coronavirus, Premier Jason Kenney immediately faced a full-blown rebellion yesterday by 15 members of his United Conservative Caucus in the Alberta Legislature, including the Speaker of the House.
A letter published on their social media accounts by the 15 MLAs, mostly rural representatives, many with ties to the Wildrose Party wing of the “United” Conservative Party, assailed the government for what it called a backward move, “a wrong decision.”
A 16th UCP MLA signed the letter later yesterday, and two others published their own attacks on their party’s COVID-control policies – so that’s 29 per cent of the UCP Caucus!
MLAs signing the letter include Cypress-Medicine Hat’s Drew Barnes, best known as an advocate of some form of Alberta independence; Red Deer-South’s Jason Stephan, who defended his January 2021 vacation in Arizona by insisting international travel doesn’t spread COVID if done responsibly; former cabinet minister Tracy Allard from Grande Prairie, returned to the back benches after her Hawaiian family vacation was discovered in December; and Speaker Nathan Cooper from Olds-Didsbury.
The letter accuses the party of “effectively abandoning the plan that Albertans had worked diligently over the past months to follow” — a bit of a laugh, considering how many of these MLAs have been arguing vociferously for weeks there should be no restrictions whatsoever on their constituents’ activities, with or without a deadly pandemic.
“After 13 painstaking months of COVID-19 public health restrictions, we do not support the additional restrictions imposed on Albertans,” the letter complained, “and we will continue advocating for a transparent path forward that provides certainty to Alberta families, communities and businesses.”
There was no acknowledgement in the letter of the seriousness of the threat now facing Alberta, or that anything much matters except reopening businesses as quickly as possible.
Premier Kenney warned listeners during Tuesday’s virtual COVID-19 news conference to expect opposition from members of his own caucus to the latest slightly tougher restrictions on social and business activities. So he obviously had a clear idea of what was coming.
This naturally prompted speculation yesterday that the letter was part of a scheme by the UCP to appeal to both camps in Alberta, those concerned by the virus who argue stronger measures would be more effective and those opposed to any restrictions whatsoever.
Anything’s possible from the bunch that came up with the Alberta Energy War Room and its campaign to protect us from the Bigfoot Family, but it’s hard to see how the UCP Caucus would benefit from airing its dirty laundry in public.
It’s more likely the premier was simply bowing to an unpleasant inevitability.
Perhaps he concluded the province is now so polarized – thanks in large part to his own political tactics – that he was going to get hammered no matter what he decided to do about COVID-19.
With even Ontario Premier Doug Ford imposing a month-long stay-at-home order in the face of rampaging variants of concern, Mr. Kenney may have decided it was less risky to let his MLAs run with their complaints than to try to muzzle them. He has until the spring of 2023 to paper over the divisions in his caucus, after all.
Still, it’s hard to see how it benefits the UCP to show the public how deep the rift in its ranks is, or to tell COVID deniers, a key part of the party’s base, that when it comes to the pandemic, their leaders have concluded they must always lose.
As if COVID restrictions unpopular with the party’s right wing weren’t enough, the premier had to know even more of his support base would be infuriated by the sight of RCMP officers and Alberta Health Services officials fencing off GraceLife Church, where parishioners have been ignoring AHS orders for weeks and Pastor James Coates has been revelling in the public attention his defiance brought.
It’s impossible to believe AHS and the RCMP struck yesterday morning without first consulting Premier Kenney’s cabinet and the UCP’s strategic brain trust.
Sure enough, late yesterday afternoon, Peace River MLA Dan Williams, a former Kenney aide in Ottawa who shares his boss’s anti-abortion activism, published a video assailing the fencing in of the rebel church.
Insisting “I’m not speaking here as a politician” as he paced in front of the Legislature Building, he said “we cannot stand by and allow churches and places of worship be treated in this manner by AHS, or any other government body.”
It’s also hard to believe that video was made without a nod of approval from his former Ottawa boss and mentor.
Nevertheless, these manifestations of rebellion undermine Mr. Kenney’s authority.
They make him look weak. If he made the decision to allow the letter to be published, it was a blunder. If he didn’t, and they went ahead anyway, it seriously undermines his authority.
Perhaps the natural state of the right in Alberta is to be divided between a far-right social conservative fringe and a true centre-right party. Instinctively, it now seems to want to return to that state.
Mr. Kenney successfully united the two largest parties of the right after the NDP victory in 2015, but he did so by driving many moderate Tories out of the old Progressive Conservative Party, and not welcoming them back to the UCP once it had also absorbed the Wildrose Party.
In the Edmonton region, those voters now seem to have settled on the NDP.
In Calgary, they opted for the UCP in 2019 – but what they’ll do in 2023 remains unknown and now may be in flux. Interestingly, none of the rebels represent Calgary city ridings, although Angela Pitt from Airdrie is close. In rural Alberta, Red Tories barely exist.
Is it possible Mr. Kenney can only save his party by driving his remaining moderate urban voters to the NDP, or by continuing to appeal to moderate voters at the cost of driving out the UCP’s most determined and active supporters on the far right?
If so, he now finds himself on the horns of a dilemma.
Who are the original 15 rebel letter signers and their two joiners?
Tracy Allard, Grande Prairie – promoted to Cabinet in August 2020 and pushed out in January 2021 after her mid-pandemic Hawaiian holiday was discovered in December.
Drew Barnes, Cypress-Medicine Hat – climate-change denier, advocate of some form of Alberta independence, and noisy opponent of any form of COVID-19 restrictions, Mr. Barnes is the UCP Caucus’s loosest cannon on deck.
Nathan Cooper, Olds-Didsbury – hitherto one of the brighter lights in the UCP Caucus, trusted to be the Speaker of the House. One wonders what got into him.
Michaela Glasgo, Brooks-Medicine Hat – controversial for her debunked claim her church faced a $50,000 bill under the NDP’s carbon tax, more recently she introduced a private member’s bill that would forbid Alberta municipalities to enact gun bans proposed in a federal gun-control bill.
Dave Hanson, Bonnyville-Cold Lake-St. Paul – a former Wildroser, the low-profile MLA is qualified as a plumber, so he is assured a better future than many of his colleagues.
Nate Horner, Drumheller-Stettler – another scion of the Horner political clan that has contributed much to Canadian politics. Assuming innocence by association, one would have thought he had more sense than to get involve with something like this.
Todd Loewen, Central Peace-Notley – a former Wildroser hitherto best known for hectoring NDP MLA Rod Loyola in the Legislature for his Hispanic origins.
Ron Orr, Lacombe-Ponoka – this former Wildrose MLA once warned that marijuana legalization would send Canada down the slippery slope to Communism, just as he said opium did to China.
Angela Pitt, Airdrie – a former Wildroser, Ms. Pitt once publicly mused that Alberta could someday be an autonomous province like South Tyrol, a German-speaking region of Italy. She is the closest thing to a Calgary MLA on the list.
Roger Reid, Livingstone-McLeod – another low-key MLA, he once got in trouble for an online sermon including remarks interpreted as Islamophobic and homophobic.
Miranda Rosin, Banff-Kananaskis – an open advocate for two-tier health care, Ms. Rosin is famous for her November 2020 flyer declaring the pandemic to be over.
RJ Sigurdson, Highwood – Mr. Sigurdson was forgiven by the UCP for the pre-election revelation he’s lost his driving licence for six months 17 years before for failing to give a breath sample. He hasn’t done much, although he expressed some discomfort with the party’s coal policy.
Mark Smith, Drayton Valley-Devon – a former Wildroser and lay preacher who got in trouble for homophobic comments made in a recorded 2013 sermon.
Jason Stephan, Red Deer-South – the Red Deer tax lawyer defended his January 2021 vacation in Arizona by insisting international travel doesn’t spread COVID if done responsibly. He has compared COVID-19 restrictions to “an NDP socialist police state lockdown.”
Glenn van Dijken, Athabaska-Barrhead-Westlock – this former Wildroser has been an MLA since 2015. He may be the Legislature’s quietest MLA.
According to the CBC, a 16th MLA signed the letter yesterday, after the copy linked to this post was circulated on social media. That would be Garth Rowswell of Vermilion-Lloydminster-Wainwright. A 17th, West Yellowhead MLA Martin Long, wrote his own complaint, which described the third wave of COVID-19 as a ripple.