Stranger than fiction: Alberta politics has entered the realm of absurd melodrama

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC’s Opinion sectionplease see the FAQ.


Alberta politics needs a new dictionary, or maybe a thesaurus – a source for words to better describe the province’s political landscape that is beginning to resemble a badly written soap opera.

The situation Alberta finds itself in has been called “unprecedented” and “historic” and just plain “bizarre.” But no words have truly captured the melodramatic craziness of a plotline that takes ridiculous twists almost hourly.

It’s a political farce where Premier Jason Kenney is now referring to members of his own United Conservative Party as “lunatics.”

That quote came from a CBC story last Thursday afternoon exposing a secret recording of Kenney telling staff two days earlier in a closed-door meeting that a move to topple him at an April 9 leadership vote was an attempted “hostile takeover of our party by fringe elements.”

Kenney was clearly worried that many of the almost 15,000 UCP members who had registered for the in-person vote in Red Deer were so fed up and angry with his leadership that they were determined to kick him out as party leader.

“The lunatics are trying to take over the asylum,” said Kenney using one of his favorite rhetorical techniques: demonize and insult anyone who opposes his leadership.

“I will not let this mainstream conservative party become an agent for extreme, hateful, intolerant, whiskered and crazy views,” said Kenney, twisting the rhetorical knife in deeper. “Sorry to be so blunt with you but you need to understand what the stakes are here.”

What’s at stake here for Kenney is his own political survival.

And the UCP’s board of directors seems eager to do all it can to help him.

One day after Kenney vowed to his staff he was “not going to let” the inmates take over the asylum, the UCP board abruptly announced it was scrapping the in-person vote on April 9 and moving the leadership review to a mail-in balloting system that will be open from April 9 to May 11.

WATCH | Premier Jason Kenney addresses media about leaked recording

Kenney stands by comments made in private recording

Premier Jason Kenney says comments came during a time of reflection, but maintains he will fight the ‘fringes’ trying to get a foothold in the UCP. 2:08

Despite once upon a time defending the in-person vote as the only credible system, the board now argues that allowing members to send in a ballot by mail will open up the vote to all of the UCP’s 55,000 members, not just those 15,000 who had registered to vote in-person.

What the board neglects to say is that Kenney seemed destined to lose the Red Deer vote because many of those 15,000 members were angry enough at Kenney’s leadership that they were willing to take a day out of their lives, spend $99 for the registration fee and pay for expenses including gas money and a hotel room to vote him out as leader.

Anger is a great motivator in politics, especially if you think your vote can make a difference.

A mail-in ballot might not blunt that anger but it might effectively smother it in a blizzard of ballots from not-so-riled-up members who didn’t care enough one way or another to make the trek to Red Deer.

Now, they get to vote and Kenney has six weeks to reach out and convince them to cast a ballot in his favour. Even if they’re not enamored with him as leader, he is hoping to scare them with warnings that the “lunatics” could take over the UCP asylum unless mainstream UCP members stop them.

I am not saying Kenney had the “secret” recording deliberately leaked to reporters but it certainly plays into his narrative that he is the fearless hero willing to save the UCP from “extreme, hateful, intolerant, whiskered and crazy views.”

Dissent

Kenney wants to paint this fight as not about him but about the very survival of the UCP just 14 months from a provincial election and a head-to-head battle with the NDP.

One major potential flaw in Kenney’s plan is assuming that the majority of “mainstream conservatives” are willing to support him.

Among them are the constituents of Calgary-Fish Creek, represented by UCP MLA Richard Gotfried who took part in a joint news conference Thursday afternoon on the steps of the Legislature, immediately below the balcony outside Kenney’s office.

The band of grumblers wasn’t great in number — just 14 in all — but included seven riding association presidents and seven MLAs: five of them UCP members and two of them former UCP MLAs who had been kicked out of caucus last year for criticizing Kenney .

“You can’t change the rules midway through a process. It is not democratic, and it’s underhanded,” said Rob Smith, president for the Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills riding association.

Rob Smith, the president of the Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills UCP constituency association, spoke at a news conference Thursday opposing changes to the review of Premier Jason Kenney’s party leadership. (Peter Evans/CBC)

Two of the MLAs, Jason Stephan from Red Deer-South and Peter Guthrie from Airdrie-Cochrane, called on Kenney to resign.

Gotfried has not called for Kenney to quit but he is concerned about the direction Kenney’s top-down leadership style is taking the party. And Gotfried is irritated that anyone would suggest party members, including constituents in Calgary-Fish Creek, are lunatics or kooks for simply questioning Kenney’s leadership.

“I take exception to that because they are not lunatics; these are my constituents,” said Gotfried in an interview for this column. “These are moderate life-long card-carrying provincial and federal conservatives.”

Not only that, as Gotfried points out, the provincial riding of Calgary-Fish Creek happens to fall inside the boundaries of the federal riding of Calgary Southeast (now Calgary Midnapore) that Kenney represented as an MP for 19 years. Gotfried is not saying all his constituents of him want Kenney to quit but many of them simply want an open and transparent vote to gauge the support for Kenney. And they worry about a “high potential for abuse of a mail-in ballot process.”

So, what happens now?

The only thing clear at this point is that instead of knowing Kenney’s fate on April 9, we will have to wait until the mail-in ballots are counted on May 18.

But the story won’t end there.

If Kenney wins, there will be continued dissent, accusations of dirty tricks, and more-than-likely a legal challenge.

If he loses, there is a very real possibility that he will run again in a UCP leadership race against Brian Jean in a rematch of the bitterly contested UCP leadership race in 2017.

Alberta’s absurd political melodrama will continue.

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