Stockwell Day-Jason Kenney

Stockwell Day and Jason Kenney at the March 2017 PC Leadership Convention (Image Credit: Lacombe Online)

A conservative party leader fails to address the concerns of his caucus. The neglected caucus members become disgruntled and openly revolt against the leader, leading to some being expelled from the caucus. 

It’s the UCP in 2021. It’s also the Canadian Alliance in 2001. 

In fact, the Canadian Alliance caucus suspensions began on May 15, 2001, twenty years ago today. It was at that time that eight Alliance MPs publicly called for party leader Stockwell Day to resign, provoking a crackdown.

There are clear parallels between these two conservative parties experiencing similar difficulties in the middle of May. But perhaps the strangest common factor of all is Jason Kenney. In 2001, Kenney was an Alliance MP and a key Day loyalist who supported the expulsion of the dissidents. That is to say, this is not his first caucus rodeo. 

The Canadian Alliance was the successor of the Reform Party of Canada, formed in 2000 as an unsuccessful attempt to “unite the right” at the federal level. Former Alberta Finance Minister Stockwell Day won the leadership of the new party and led it into the November 2000 federal election. However, the new party did not achieve its much hoped-for electoral breakthrough in Ontario, and Day was blamed for the poor result.

Shortly thereafter, Day was involved in a series of missteps and controversies – such as falsely accusing a judge of being in a conflict of interest, and denying he met with an undercover agent after first affirming that he had met with him – that were embarrassing to the party and undermined his credibility as leader. 

By April 2001, the Alliance was polling at 13% nationally, behind Joe Clark’s Progressive Conservatives at 15%, and well behind Jean Chretien’s Liberals. This was embarrassing and clearly undermined the effort to unite-the-right behind the Alliance. 

Nevertheless, Day demanded strict loyalty from his MPs. As Preston Manning recounts in his book Think Big, “On several occasions – at internal meetings in February and March 2001 – when requesting personal loyalty from his caucus officers and key staff, Stockwell had emphasized the point by saying: ‘If I kill my grandmother with an axe, I want you to stand up and say she had it coming.’” 

By May, however, much of the Alliance caucus had lost confidence in Day, and MP Art Hanger publicly called for Day to resign as leader. He was suspended from the caucus, followed shortly by MP Gary Lunn, who agreed with Hanger.

Then, on May 15, eight MPs issued a joint statement calling on Day to resign and were then suspended from caucus. Deborah Grey, the first-ever elected Reform Party MP wrote of that group in her book Never Retreat, Never Explain, Never Apologize: “They were an impressive bunch. Among them were several members of the [Reform Party] Class of 1993. One was Jay Hill (Peace River-Prince George), who had run in the 1988 election and was as faithful to the Reform cause as anyone I have ever met.” That is the same Jay Hill who currently leads the Maverick Party.

These “dissidents” would later be joined by other disgruntled Alliance MPs, and form the Democratic Representative Caucus (DRC). 

Day eventually resigned and then lost the subsequent leadership campaign to Stephen Harper in March 2002. By that time, support for the Alliance was down to 7% in a Gallup poll. The leadership controversy had led to a total meltdown for the party.

During this period of leadership crisis in the Alliance, Jason Kenney was a chief lieutenant to Stockwell Day and supported ousting the dissident MPs. He wasn’t watching from the sidelines. Now, exactly twenty years later, Kenney is once again at the centre of a full-scale caucus revolt. Did he not learn from that initial experience the best practices for caucus management? Apparently not.

As mentioned, the first Alliance MPs suspended from caucus were soon followed by others. In comments to the Calgary Herald, recently expelled MLA Drew Barnes mentioned that some discontented MLAs remain within the UCP caucus and said, “I think as long as the premier doesn’t accept responsibly for how low the UCP has become in the polls, how low his popularity is, that that may embolden some people to speak up.” That is, the caucus revolt may not be over yet. 

Will the UCP undergo a continual erosion of support for its leader, like the Canadian Alliance experienced twenty years ago? Is there another Stephen Harper on the horizon who could take the reigns and restore the party to health in time for the next provincial election? Who in the UCP caucus is playing 2001 Jason Kenney to Stockwell Day for 2021 Jason Kenney?

The beneficiaries of the current internal discord in the UCP are the Wildrose Independence Party and Rachel Notley’s NDP. Many of those disappointed with the UCP are likely to move towards Wildrose, building on its current growth. The party might even pick up one or more former UCP MLAs, giving it a presence in the legislature and a more prominent provincial voice. 

On the down side, the NDP is leading in the polls. Could the unthinkable occur? A second NDP government? For many Albertans, their blood runs cold at the thought. As these possibilities reveal, the current turmoil in the UCP is not just about the future of one party and its leader, but about the future of the province itself.

Michael Wagner is a Columnist for the Western Standard

Senior Columnist (Alberta)

Michael Wagner is the Senior Alberta Columnist for the Western Standard and Alberta Report based in Edmonton, Alberta. He has a PhD in political science from the U of A and has authored several books on Alberta politics and the independence movement.

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