EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Jason Kenney is dismissing the challenge from a vanquished foe turned renewed rival, characterizing United Conservative Party co-founder Brian Jean as a petty, flighty nuisance.
“Mr. Jean has been trying to destabilize our party for going on three years now. I regard that as a distraction,” Kenney said Tuesday.
“Our focus is doing the people’s business right now on economic recovery.
“I’m not going to be distracted by somebody trying to settle scores with internal political games.”
Kenney made the comments after Jean, who co-founded the United Conservative Party with Kenney in 2017 only to lose to him in a fractious leadership contest, announced last week he is coming out of retirement to run for the UCP with the goal of ousting Kenney from the top job as party leader and premier.
Kenney must by mid-February call a byelection in the riding of Fort McMurray — Lac La Biche, which is Jean’s hometown, to replace UCP member Laila Goodridge.
Goodridge is now in Ottawa after resigning the seat to successfully capture the federal riding of Fort McMurray-Cold Lake for the Conservative party in September.
Jean said Kenney has failed to get the job done and that Kenney’s plunging popularity poll numbers have opened the door for Rachel Notley’s NDP to return to power in the 2023 election.
He said he wants to run under the UCP banner, but will run as an Independent if necessary.
Jean could not be immediately reached for comment.
Kenney has said he’ll endorse Jean's nomination to run for the party if he is the successful nominee, but urged party members to look closely at a Jean, saying his track record suggests lack of commitment.
Kenney noted Jean left his MP job before the term was up and then did the same as a provincial UCP member in March 2018. He noted Jean’s name has also popped up on rumours to lead other fledgling parties.
“I think (party) members might want to ask about how serious he is and (how) committed, or whether this is just another unpredictable development in his political ambitions,” said Kenney.
Kenney also challenged Jean’s assertion last week that he left the UCP after being frozen out by Kenney in the months following the leadership race.
Not so, said Kenney.
Kenney said he reached out to Jean after the party leadership vote, urged him to stay on, promised him a role on the front bench if he so desired, but never heard from Jean until he advised him he was leaving politics.
“We did everything we could to invite him to take a meaningful leadership role,” said Kenney.
This is the latest salvo in what has become a bitter and bruising public feud between Kenney and Jean. It began soon after Kenney defeated Jean in the October 2017 UCP leadership race, followed by Jean quitting his seat in the legislature to focus more on his family and rebuild a house burnt down in the catastrophic 2016 Fort McMurray wildfire.
After leaving, Jean posted newspaper editorials and social media posts critical of Kenney and his policies.
In March 2019, even before the UCP’s successful election win, Jean publicly accused Kenney of peddling “fiscal fairy tales” by promising to balance the books with profoundly unrealistic economic growth predictions.
The criticism escalated this year as Kenney’s government struggled to stay ahead of the second, third and fourth waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing hospital capacity to the brink and leading to open dissent in the United Conservative caucus over Kenney’s leadership.
In an open letter published in February, Jean accused Kenney of not getting the job done on multiple files, denigrating what he termed the government’s combative approach to politics and public relations. He urged Kenney to listen to his caucus, eat better and get a good night’s sleep.
In June, he urged Kenney to quit, suggesting his top-down, thin-skinned, bully boy approach to government was causing Albertans to ditch the UCP in droves.
“The premier seems to think that everyone who isn’t 100 per cent loyal to Jason Kenney is an enemy of this government,” wrote Jean.
The United Conservative Party was created in 2017 when Jean’s Wildrose party and Kenney’s Progressive Conservatives agreed to join forces.
Jean and Kenney then squared off to run for the leadership of the UCP. Kenney won with 61 per cent of the vote, about double that of Jean.
Since then, it was revealed that Kenney’s team had co-ordinated communications with another leadership candidate, Jeff Callaway, who attacked Jean throughout the campaign before quitting to endorse Kenney.
The RCMP is investigating allegations of identity fraud in the leadership vote.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 9, 2021.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press