Alberta’s premier has called fellow Conservatives “lunatics” who are “trying to take over the asylum” as a populist mutiny in his party foreshadows a bitter fight for the future of Canada’s Conservative movement.
In a leaked recording of a meeting with caucus staff on Tuesday, Premier Jason Kenney warned a far-right element – skeptical of coronavirus measures and wedded to conspiracy theories – could seize control of the party in the coming weeks as the United Conservatives hold a leadership review.
“I will not let this mainstream conservative party become an agent for extreme, hateful, intolerant, bigoted and crazy views. Sorry to be so blunt with you but you need to understand what the stakes are here,” he said, before alluding to the baseless QAnon conspiracy theory with a warning that “people who think I am involved in a global conspiracy to traffic children” would show up to vote for his removal.
The comments underscore both Kenney’s sagging poll numbers and the degree to which an energized faction of the United Conservatives threaten his leadership.
But the controversy could also foreshadow a bitter fight for control over the federal Conservative party, as candidates vying for national leadership gauge a possible ideological shift in Alberta, the party’s electoral heartland.
“The Conservatives seem to have this existential crisis, where they break apart and come together and break again,” said Lori Turnbull, director of Dalhousie University’s School of Public Administration, citing the “deep-seated” differences within the party that flare up every few years. “The federal candidates are definitely looking to see what happens in Alberta, because that’s going to be a big part of the game for whoever ends up winning the leadership race.”
In a statement, the premier’s office said Kenney’s comments were “consistent” with previous public remarks on the issue.
For the last two years, Kenney has led a party with strong internal divisions over public health measures, with the most anti-government element protesting lockdowns.
Those cracks, which critics say slowed Alberta’s response, are cited as part of the reason that Alberta at one point during the pandemic had one of the highest coronavirus infection rates in North America.
Recent polling suggests Kenney’s response to the crisis placed neither the libertarian element nor those wanting strong public health measures: the premier has one of the lowest approval ratings in the country.
“He was seen as the savor of a fractured party, a shot in the arm for Alberta. He looked like a slam dunk,” said Turnbull. “And now he’s crashed and burned.”
For his part, Kenney has suggested those looking to out him are “kooky people generally”.
“[Prominent Alberta conservative] Preston Manning used to say that a bright light attracts a few bugs, well, there’s more than a few bugs attracted to us, this party, right now,” said Kenney.
In the audio recording, the premier suggests mounting frustrations over the job led him to consider quitting.
“What’s the easiest path for me? Just to take a walk. I don’t need this job. I could go to the private sector, have my evenings, weekends off,” he said. The premier opted to stay and fight, he said, over fears that internal turmoil would hand the rival New Democrats power in the next election.
The party was hit with fresh turmoil this week after leadership made a last-minute switch to mail-in ballots, citing a record surge in party registration. The sudden shift has led to accusations of cheating by party members, some of whom called for Kenney to resign.
The results will be announced 18 May and Kenney will need a simple majority to stay on as leader.