(Photo credit: @Alberta_UCP on Twitter)
With more than 2,500 party members in attendance, this weekend’s United Conservative Party founding convention was one of the biggest political events in Alberta’s recent memory. It was a big show of force for the official opposition party, which continues to dominate in the polls and fundraising.
The convention should have been a victory lap for Jason Kenney after forcing the merger of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties and winning the new party’s leadership. Instead, the big story of the convention is how it was derailed by a membership base weirdly obsessed with Gay-Straight Alliances.
Fifty-seven percent of convention delegates voted in favour of a policy that would out students who join Gay-Straight Alliances. Supporters of the policy claimed it was about parental rights, but that did not stop three MLAs from going to mic to plead with UCP members to end the madness.
“This is about outing gay kids,” said Calgary-Hays UCP MLA Ric McIver as he pleaded with party members not to pass the policy. “Don’t be called the Lake of Fire party, I’m begging you. This will really severely hurt our chances at winning. Don’t do that to yourself.”
But the pleas from the MLAs were not enough to change the minds of members, including a well organized contingent of social conservatives, at the convention.
The debate over this motion came only days after Edmonton’s Pride Festival Society rejected the UCP’s application to march in this year’s pride parade. A similar application was rejected by Calgary’s Pride festival in August 2017.
Even though it was Kenney’s comments about Gay-Straight Alliances that reignited this issue back in March 2017, he now says he won’t implement the policy if he becomes premier.
It could, and probably will, be argued that Kenney’s denouncement of this policy contradicted his “Grassroots Guarantee” that the party membership will determine the party’s policies. Kenney used the “guarantee” as a way of circumventing any substantive policy debates during the 2017 UCP leadership contest.
It is not clear what other member-endorsed policies Kenney will choose to ignore if and when he becomes Alberta’s next premier.
UCP members also adopted policies to eliminate the carbon tax, reintroduce a flat tax, increase privatization in health care and education, and require parental consent for invasive medical procedures on a minor (this motion was cheered by anti-abortion groups).
One Big Conservative Family
An underreported story of this weekend’s convention is the very close relationship between the UCP and the Conservative Party of Canada.
The presence of a federal Conservative leader Andrew Scheer as a keynote speaker would have been unheard of at any provincial party convention in recent years. Scheer was joined at the convention by a number of Conservative MPs, and former leader Rona Ambrose, who spoke at the convention on a panel about women in politics.
The relationship between the federal and provincial conservative parties has always been complex, but it has been exceptionally complicated over the past three decades. The rise of the Reform Party and collapse of the federal PC Party in the early 1990s meant there was no formal alliance between the dominant federal and provincial conservative parties in Alberta for many years.
Almost as soon as the Conservative Party of Canada was formed in 2003, the Alberta Alliance, and later the Wildrose Alliance and Wildrose Party split the provincial conservative movement, leaving federal Conservative MPs divided in their loyalties for the PC and Wildrose parties.
While most of the focus has been on the Wildrose-PC merger, Kenney’s “unity” extends to the federal party as well.