United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney has created a panel to look at Alberta’s finances. (File photo from The Canadian Press)

United Conservative Party leader Jason Kenney has created a panel to look at Alberta’s finances. (File photo from The Canadian Press)

Culture of fear’: Critic says Alberta premier reaping results of divisive leadership

Criticism of Jason Kenney by some in his own caucus has been bubbling to the surface

One of Jason Kenney’s caucus members says the Alberta premier is reaping what he has sown through personal attacks, dividing people and intimidating opponents.

“It is this negativity developed through a culture of fear that destroys unity,” Peter Guthrie, United Conservative Party member for Airdrie-Cochrane, said Tuesday in a five-minute video posted on his Facebook page.

“The premier encourages disrespectful treatment through his own actions,” Guthrie said.

“It is this very approach and leadership style that has driven a wedge between (the United Conservative) caucus and executive, causing opinions to solidify against Jason Kenney.”

The premier’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Criticism of Kenney by some in his own caucus has been bubbling to the surface for more than a year, driven by underwhelming polling and fundraising numbers.

Kenney has said it’s because of resentment over some of his COVID-19 decisions. But Guthrie and other UCP members of the legislature say the premier is running a close-knit, top-down command structure impervious to grassroots advice.

Criticism has became more pointed and vocal in recent weeks after the party executive made last-minute changes to distribute mail-in ballots rather than hold an in-person vote in a review of Kenney’s leadership.

Critics say the changes were made to ensure Kenney gets majority support. Without it, he would have to resign as per party rules and a leadership race would follow.

Guthrie, along with other dissident legislature members, and Kenney supporters have been publicly attacking each other in mainstream and social media.

Last week, multiple backbenchers expressed deep concern with Kenney in a newspaper column. Leela Aheer, demoted from cabinet last year over her criticism of the premier, said she fears the UCP is becoming equated to corruption. MLA Angela Pitt characterized the government as a closed circle of decision-makers contemptuous of dissenting voices.

Another MLA, Jason Stephan, said unity doesn’t mean marching together off a cliff. Recently elected UCP member Brian Jean has likened Kenney to a millstone around the party’s neck that will drag it down to defeat in the 2023 Alberta provincial election.

In response, Kenney’s issues manager Bryan Rogers took to Twitter to compare the dissidents to clowns. Guthrie accused Harrison Fleming, Kenney’s deputy communications director, of labelling the dissidents a “sad set of sour MLAs” on an anonymous party Twitter site.

Kenney himself — in a leaked audio recording — has called his critics “lunatics” and “kooky people” and compared them to insects drawn to the bright light of his party’s success.

“This browbeating by administration goes unchecked by the premier because it supports his objective,” Guthrie said.

“In their minds, it’s OK to do things that are unethical or in poor taste if it is a benefit to their cause or a means to their end.”

Guthrie’s post is one of the lengthiest, pointed attacks on Kenney’s leadership since backbencher Todd Loewen called out Kenney a year ago. Loewen was immediately voted out of caucus, as was another Kenney critic, Drew Barnes.

UCP members are currently mailing in their ballots on Kenney’s leadership. Results are to be announced May 18.

Last week, Kenney called for all sides to stop the public attacks. He added that he has probably been too lenient on dissidents and promised that if he gets a majority in the vote everyone in caucus will be expected to fall in line.

Political scientist Lori Williams said Kenney’s aggressive political style of “trying to tap into anger” is coming home to roost.

“There’s this strategy led consistently by Jason Kenney himself of not disagreeing or explaining why the people that are criticizing them are wrong, but (instead) attacking them personally,” said Williams of Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“Anyone who disagrees with him, they’re (labelled) socialists. They’re lunatics. They’re extremists. They’re union members.

“This is going to stoke anger. It’s going to increase division.”

— Dean Bennett, THE CANADIAN PRESS

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