LAKELAND - Fort McMurray-Lac La Biche UCP MLA Brian Jean wasn’t surprised when Jason Kenney announced his resignation as leader of the party following Wednesday’s leadership vote.
In fact, Jean was elected as the northeastern Alberta MLA in a March by-election with a campaign to replace Kenney. Following Kenney’s announcement, after a 51.4 per cent approval rating issued by more than 34,000 party members, Jean told Lakelandtoday.ca the premier needs to go "immediately."
“For the healing and rebuilding to begin, Jason Kenney needs to leave immediately,” said Jean, who has made no secret over the last two years that he would like to be the next leader of the UCP.
In his announcement on Wednesday to a crowd of UPC supporters in a Calgary meeting room, Kenney himself said his departure was hopefully the first step to help the party re-build.
“While 51 per cent of the vote passes the constitutional threshold of a majority, it clearly is not adequate support to continue on as leader, and that is why tonight I’ve informed the president of the party of my intention to step down as leader of the United Conservative Party,” Kenney said. The decision took many by surprise. But not Jean.
“Jason Kenney knows the right thing to do and stepping down immediately is the right thing for him to do,” the area MLA said, citing Kenney’s track record with the economy, rural development and the province's healthcare response to the pandemic.
Jean and Kenney were integral in the creation of the UCP party, merging the former Wildrose Party and the Alberta Conservative Party in 2017. Jean had been the Wildrose leader and Kenney was the Conservative top spot. A leadership race in 2017 to determine who would lead the new party was won by Kenney — but under a cloud of controversy that is still part of an on-going RCMP investigation years later. Jean pushed for the investigation and continues to maintain that it was won by cheating and deception.
Despite a long and sometimes personal campaign between Jean and Kenney in the years since, on Wednesday night the MLA did offer his professional acknowledgement of the Premier’s tenure.
"I want to thank Jason Kenney for his quarter century of public service for Albertans and Canadians. As I have said for several weeks now, no one understands political traditions and conventions more than Jason Kenney and I want to thank him for his decent and honourable concession,” Jean posted on Twitter Wednesday night.
Wednesday’s vote results came after a month of collecting 34,298 UCP membership ballots from the mail-in vote. The one question on the ballot asked members if they supported the current premier. The answer was 17,638 ‘yes’ votes, and 16,660 ‘no’ votes.
Not enough, said Kenney, to justify going forward as the leader.
“I’m sorry friends,” Kenney told the party members at Wednesday’s announcement, “I truly believe we need to move forward united. We need to put the past behind us and our members—a large number of our members—have asked for an opportunity to clear the air through a leadership election.”
In making his announcement Kenny also highlighted the accomplishments from his time as the party leader — despite an economic decline and a global health crisis.
“And yet, despite all of that, we got the job done, delivering on nearly 90 per cent of our election commitments,” from “balancing the budget for the first time in 14-year," diversifying energy opportunities and education reform, he added.
Battle for the night
Acknowledging the competition in his own caucus as the battles with other leadership opponents arise, battles with other provincial political parties and battles in global markets for oil and gas, Kenny attempted to lighten the mood of his resignation announcement by saying the most important battle taking place at the same time was the one on the ice. The first game of the best of seven NHL playoff series between the Edmonton Oilers and the Calgary Flames was taking place in Calgary the same night.
“Let’s get on with the real show tonight; the battle of Alberta," the out-going Premier said with a smile. "As Darryl Sutter [Flames head coach] said yesterday ‘It’s bringing our province together, it’s the best thing ever,’ I couldn’t agree more.”
While the northern Alberta team lost the opening game in the continuing battle for the top spot, the northern Alberta MLA hopes his campaign to be the province’s political top spot has a better start.
Once party officials announce the details of the coming leadership race, Jean will be ready, he says, to put his name forward to help “renew” the UCP.
“My campaign will demonstrate how we can do things differently, together, to recapture the enthusiastic support of the over one million Albertans who elected us in 2019,” Jean announced in a prepared statement hours after Kenney’s announcement.
Giving few specifics about his plans, Jean said he will “speak more on the issue in the coming days.”
While UCP caucus members met the day after the decision to discuss next steps, no information had been released by the original publication deadline of this story. Questions relating to time frames or interim leadership were not immediately answered.
The next Alberta provincial election is scheduled to take place in May of 2023.