UCP leadership hopefuls fight for position, disagree over interim head

‘The leadership process can’t start until Kenney leaves — he knows that, we know that,’ said Brian Jean

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Less than a day after Premier Jason Kenney announced he would step down, two candidates intending to replace him are already disagreeing on how the governing UCP should move forward.

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Former Wildrose party leaders Brian Jean and Danielle Smith are the only ones to state their intentions to seek the UCP’s top job so far, after Kenney told supporters Wednesday he’ll resign after capturing just 51.4 per cent of the vote in a leadership review.

On Thursday, Jean was adamant the only way for the party to move forward is to immediately jettison Kenney from the top spot and elect an interim leader.

“The leadership process can’t start until Kenney leaves — he knows that, we know that,” said Jean as headed into a UCP caucus meeting at Calgary’s McDougall Centre.

“We need to renew it and excite Albertans about the future of the party.”

In an online news conference, Smith said she wouldn’t object to Kenney staying on as premier until September — when she expects a leadership vote to be held — partly so he can host the Alberta visit of Pope Francis in July.

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“The premier did a lot of work in getting reconciliation and an apology from the Vatican and the Pope . . . if he wants to stay as premier and stay for the honour he deserves, I wouldn’t object to that,” he said.

“I would defer to caucus in making that judgment.”

Later on Thursday, party officials announced Kenney would remain at the helm until a replacement was elected on a yet-to-be-determined date.

Smith said she’s learned from the past, which included what she called the “mistake” of crossing the floor as leader of the Wildrose to join with then-premier Jim Prentice’s ruling Progressive Conservatives in late 2014.

“It’s not what Albertans wanted me to do, they wanted me to continue holding (Prentice) to account. I didn’t, it was a big mistake on my part and we were both judged very harshly for that,” she said, adding she’s committed to party unity.

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“Albertans recognize that with the NDP polling at 44 per cent, that if we split this movement we won’t be successful at forming the next government.”

Danielle Smith, former leader of the Wildrose Party and talk show host, is running for the United Conservative Party of Alberta in the 2023 General Election.
Danielle Smith, former leader of the Wildrose Party and talk show host, is running for the United Conservative Party of Alberta in the 2023 General Election. SCREENSHOT FROM MEDIA ADVISORY ZOOM CALL

Part of the healing and uniting process, said Smith, would be officially apologizing to all those charged or arrested for violating COVID-19 public health restrictions in the past two years and exploring how such enforcement could be avoided in the future.

Jean has said he opposes COVID-19 vaccine mandates and expanding an immunization passport program imposed last fall.

On April 1, Smith, 51, announced she’d seek the UCP nomination in the Livingstone-Macleod riding currently held by MLA Roger Reid but also made it clear she was ready to run for the party’s leadership.

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She led Wildrose beginning in October 2009 and positioned the party to defeat Allison Redford’s Progressive Conservatives in the 2012 provincial election.

But issues over perceived extremism in the Wildrose ranks and her refusal to exert discipline torpedoed those electoral hopes.

In a surprise move, she crossed the floor to join Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives in December 2014.

That was seen by many on the political right as a betrayal and she failed to win the PC nomination in the Highwood riding the following year.

Smith worked as a radio host for six years until stepping down in January 2021, citing an increasing hostility toward free speech.

She insisted that doesn’t mean she’s too thin-skinned for a return to politics.

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“I can handle the heat, I’ve handled heat for a lot of years — what I can’t handle is cancel culture and that’s what we’ve really got to push back against,” said Smith.

Jean, 59, easily won the Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche byelection in March on a platform of ousting Kenney as party leader.

Prior to that, he’d been an MP in the Stephen Harper federal Conservative government and led the Wildrose party after Smith’s departure from 2015 to 2017, until its merger with the PCs.

He was MLA for Fort McMurray-Conklin from 2015 to 2018, leaving after he lost the party leadership to Kenney in a race tarnished by the so-called “kamikaze campaign” that remains under RCMP investigation.

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Calgary-Klein MLA Jeremy told reporters Thursday he’s not ruling out a run for his party’s leadership.

“I haven’t made that decision at this time – I have a lot to add to the conversation whether thats’s running myself or getting behind somebody,” said Nixon.

“I wouldn’t rule myself out of anything at this time.”

Jean and Smith represent the right wing of the UCP, but current cabinet ministers further to the centre, including Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer and Finance Minister Travis Toews, would be credible candidates, said Mount Royal University political science professor Lori Williams.

But Williams said that leadership choice might not come down to a left-right split given what ousted Kenney.

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“It had a lot more to do with his leadership choices, his flip-flopping and inability to operate to what Albertans wanted,” she said.

“He didn’t seem to hear or understand that.”

FILE PHOTO: Doug Schweitzer and Travis Toews attend the rural crime town hall at the Hampton Inn in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.
FILE PHOTO: Doug Schweitzer and Travis Toews attend the rural crime town hall at the Hampton Inn in Grande Prairie, Alta. on Thursday, Sept. 12, 2019.

But because of his divisive influence, the sooner Kenney leaves the party’s top position the better, with a change in leadership automatically making an NDP election win next year harder to achieve, said Williams.

“There’s no question (the NDP) would prefer Jason Kenney staying on and the party remaining split,” she said.

Another name that’s arisen as a UCP leadership possibility is Calgary Nose Hill Conservative MP Michelle Rempel Garner.

She didn’t answer when asked Thursday if she’s considering entering the race, but in a statement called for unity and for her provincial cousins to strive for equality of opportunity as she does in Parliament.

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“I know my conservative colleagues in the Alberta legislature will continue to do the same,” said Rempel Garner.

Former federal cabinet minister Rona Ambrose, who’s seen by some as a natural successor to Kenney, has said she doesn’t want the job.

Cypress Hills-Medicine Hat MLA Drew Barnes, who was booted from the UCP over his opposition to Kenney’s leadership, also gave no intention of challenging for the leadership but said he was ready to return to the party.

Meanwhile, Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley said uncertainty in the UCP’s leadership will continue to ensure the government’s dysfunction.

“The drama and infighting plaguing the UCP is not over,” she said, while surrounded by NDP candidates and MLAs.

And she said no matter who the UCP chooses as the next leader, they’re still headed for a tough reckoning with voters a year from now.

“What we’re hearing on the doorsteps is people don’t trust the UCP and it doesn’t matter who ultimately leads the UCP,” said Notley.

— With files from Dylan Short

Twitter: @BillKaufmannjrn

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