Patio dinner fallout shows new fractures in Alberta's United Conservative Party, pollster says

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Premier Jason Kenney, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and a staff member were photographed dining outdoors on the evening of June 1.   (Submitted - image credit)
Premier Jason Kenney, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, Health Minister Tyler Shandro and a staff member were photographed dining outdoors on the evening of June 1. (Submitted - image credit)

As a growing number of politicians voice their displeasure about the Alberta premier's controversial "Sky Palace" patio dinner, it appears that the cracks within the United Conservative Party are growing as well, says an Alberta pollster and political commentator.

Two UCP cabinet ministers and an equal number of backbench MLAs have said that a June 1 patio dinner that took place on top of the Federal Building, in a part of a suite known as the "Sky Palace," contravened public health rules.

Photos taken by an anonymous tipster without their knowledge showed Premier Jason Kenney, Health Minister Tyler Shandro, Environment and Parks Minister Jason Nixon, Finance Minister Travis Toews, interim chief of staff Larry Kaumeyer and deputy chief of staff Pam Livingston.

None were wearing masks and it's unclear whether attendees were appropriately distanced.

"When the premier introduced the last series of lockdown measures, kicked a couple of contentious members out of caucus, things seemed to quiet down, and we weren't really seeing any dissension from caucus," pollster Janet Brown said Sunday.

"It looked like things were calming down and we wondered whether Jason Kenney had sort of regrouped after the last caucus uprising. But no, it would seem like the cracks have re-emerged."

The first UCP MLA to speak out was Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt on Friday. Then cabinet ministers Rajan Sawhney and Leela Aheer both separately called for apologies over the weekend.

'Lack of sensitivity'

Aheer's post also criticized the "cancel culture" comments made by Kenney last week regarding Canada's first prime minister John A. Macdonald, whose government introduced residential schools in 1883.

"It's not just about lockdown measures," Brown said of the concerns being raised by elected party members.

"It's also about perhaps a sense that there was a lack of sensitivity on the part of Jason Kenney when he had a chance to talk about these 215 children. He chose to sort of go down the route of a high school debate format and miss really the striking emotion of the events that transpired last week."

On Sunday, Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Richard Gotfried also posted a statement to Facebook calling on all elected representatives at all levels of government across the province to show leadership and act responsibly.

Kenney has said the dinner was within public health rules because it was under the 10-person limit on outdoor social gatherings. But he has not addressed apparent violations of masking and distancing rules.

NDP leader Rachel Notley said Sunday she isn't surprised to see Kenney's MLAs speaking out.

"What you're seeing is that Albertans are very frustrated with the demonstration by the UCP and Jason Kenney and his top cabinet ministers," Notley said. "That they truly believe that there's one set of rules for them and another set of rules for the rest of Albertans. And I have no doubt that UCP members across this province are getting an earful from Albertans about that."

She says the patio dinner photos showing the premier and his inner circle appearing to violate health rules show Kenney is in it for himself.

"He's no leader," said Notley Sunday in an online speech. "Those photos (are) showing the premier and his most senior ministers huddled around a table, on top of his private Sky Palace patio, not a care in the world. No masks, no distancing, no rules. Just whisky, waiters and white linen tablecloths.

"They reveal the real Jason Kenney: a man who refuses to let his own rules prevent him from living his best life — a life that you and I can't have yet."

CBC has reached out to the premier's office for comment.

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