An internal feud battering Alberta’s governing party took a new twist after Premier Jason Kenney’s issues manager went on Twitter to compare Kenney’s United Conservative backbench critics to clowns.
The tweet was sent Friday morning by Bryan Rogers, who is normally chief of staff to the Infrastructure minister but is temporarily working as Kenney’s issues manager as some of the premier’s staff have taken unpaid leave to drum up support for him in his leadership review.
Rogers was responding to a newspaper column that featured renewed criticism of Kenney from some UCP caucus members, including Leela Aheer and deputy Speaker Angela Pitt.
Rogers dismissed the criticism as coming from “the same old crew,” and posted a short video clip of gyrating, gesticulating clowns from the TV show “The Simpsons.”
Pitt fired back on Twitter: “This is exactly the kind of bullying and intimidation that happens every day from the premier’s staff. MLAs provide dissenting opinions and they are ridiculed like clowns or called insane.”
Aheer, who was dropped from cabinet last year after criticizing Kenney, also joined the social media fight.
“We will not cower to ‘power.’ It’s just a different form of abuse,” said Aheer on Twitter.
“The corruption comes from those in leadership roles who believe that they are the smartest people in the room. Time to find a different room.
“Our party and our vision has an opportunity to revitalize and renew through a leadership race.”
The party is in the midst of a mail-in vote to decide whether Kenney should remain leader.
Almost 60,000 party members are eligible to vote in the leadership review. Results are to be announced May 18.
Earlier this week, Kenney reiterated that if he fails to get 50 per cent support in the review, he will step aside, as per party rules.
But he said if he wins, he expects everyone in caucus to fall in line so the party can present a united front to defeat the Opposition NDP in the 2023 provincial election.
The vote itself is distrusted by Kenney’s opponents. It was supposed to be an in-person vote April 9 in Red Deer, but it was altered to a mail-in ballot just weeks before the vote was to take place and after the cutoff date for newcomers to sign up.
Critics say it was changed to favour Kenney. The party, meanwhile, remains under RCMP investigation for allegations of criminal identity fraud tied to the voting that saw Kenney win the leadership in 2017.
Kenney has been facing pushback from some in his caucus and party for more than a year — problems tied to and fuelled by low polling and disappointing fundraising numbers.
His caucus has fired some dissenters – Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes, while others like Pitt, Aheer, Brian Jean, Peter Guthrie, and Jason Stephan have been allowed to stay, despite similar pointed criticism of Kenney.
Kenney has said dissension over his leadership is tied to limits he put on personal freedoms to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Critics, including the backbenchers, say it’s much more, that Kenney and his inner circle are ruling from the top down with a mailed fist, a profound violation of the grassroots ethos Kenney promised when he helped create the UCP in a marriage of two antagonistic Alberta conservative parties in 2017.
Kenney said this week he has been too easy on dissenters and lamented that Albertans are increasingly unimpressed with the ongoing feud, which he likened to a “soap opera.”
He has also called the leadership review a proxy party takeover bid by fringe “lunatics” drawn like bugs to the bright light of his party’s success.
Jean, Kenney’s co-founder of the UCP, said in a statement: “Jason Kenney says he is the only person who can keep the UCP united, and then a senior political staffer in his inner circle publicly bullies and insults one sixth of the caucus.
“If the UCP has become a soap opera, it might be because too many people around this premier seem to think that (the political potboiler) ‘House of Cards’ is reality TV.”
–Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press