Who is the United Conservative Party?
On the 22nd of July, the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta and the Wildrose Party voted to merge into the United Conservative Party. This vote followed months of speculation after Jason Kenney announced his intention to run as leader of the PCAA with the goal of uniting Alberta’s political right. With unification now a reality and October 28th’s leadership vote on the horizon, Alberta’s conservatives must take a long look in the mirror and determine who exactly they are and whom they represent.
While Alberta is widely known as a deeply conservative province, the reality is somewhat messier than that. While it’s true that Albertans regularly elect conservative representatives to office, both on a federal and provincial level, and while many prominent conservative politicians call Alberta home, presupposing that Alberta conservatism is homogenous would be a mistake.
Indeed, Albertans generally support many progressive goals and oppose attempts to roll back or obstruct social change. The most prominent recent example of this is Bill 10, mandating that schools allow students to create Gay-Straight Alliance clubs. When Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives hesitated to support Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202, which sought to introduce similar measures, they were forced by the public backlash to draft their own version, Bill 10, which eventually passed. Furthermore, when Jason Kenney recently challenged students’ right to membership GSAs by saying that parents should be informed of their membership, likely preventing many students to join due to fear of their parents’ reaction, he faced significant public outcry and retreated briefly from the public eye.
Public support for progressive issues has frequently been an obstacle for Alberta’s conservative parties. The Wildrose Party lost the 2012 election that they seemed destined to win after a party candidate’s blog post asserting that homosexuals would burn in a lake of fire came to light. MLA Derek Fildebrandt recently announced that social issues were “stale” and didn't rank in the “top 100 reasons” he ran for office, a declaration that earned him criticism from across the political spectrum.
In the face of all this, it’s perhaps not surprising that Brian Jean, in his bid for leadership of the newly formed United Conservative Party, has adopted a more centrist image and tried to distance himself from the socially conservative elements of Alberta’s political right. Jason Kenney, by contrast, has called Jean out for using the “language of the left,” a move that no doubt appeals to the far-right supporters who flocked to his leadership campaign and intimidated Sandra Jansen and Donna Kennedy-Glans out of the race (and, in the case of Jansen, into the NDP caucus). So what does this all mean for the UCP? As I noted at the start of this article, the party is currently trying to decide who it is. Political parties in Alberta are notoriously long-lived, and while each leader highlights his or her own values among those shared by the party, it is not hyperbole to state that what happens in the UCP over the next few months could shape Alberta for decades to come.
While Jean may want the UCP to remain open to progressive supporters, he has also accused the NDP of threatening parental choice in education—a term suspiciously close to the phrase “parental rights,” which has been used when suggesting that parents should be notified when their children join a GSA regardless of whether the child wants their membership to be known.
The UCP’s support of LGBTQ+ rights is also questionable. While the leadership candidates have tried to appear open on these issues, none of them have marched in any of the Pride parades held in the province this summer and when an openly gay Wildrose staffer decided to march he received homophobic messages, prompting him to ask “why the Wildrose base is so god damn homophobic.” The interim leader of the new party, too, has a history of supporting homophobic groups. Women also have cause to be suspicious of their role in the party. The leadership race that brought Kenney into power was marked by extremely misogynistic bullying that drove the only two women in the running from the race. The photo of the UCP’s first caucus meeting shows only one woman, in stark contrast to the NDP, whose MLAs are nearly half women.
In the absence of policies on social issues, both the socially progressive and the socially conservative groups in the UCP will be able to project their own views on the fledgling party. Staying quiet about whether the UCP supports a child’s right to join a GSA without fear of parental reprisal allows those who support that student to assume that all will continue as it has in the past, while those who would argue that parents have a right to be notified can tell themselves that the UCP shares their point of view but just hasn’t addressed it yet because of more-pressing economic issues under discussion. Silence and some scattered mentions of “parental choice” allow all conservatives to hold their tongues while focusing on their quest for power.
Ultimately, it’s up to the party to decide its future, either to embrace social conservativism or hew closer to the centre-right social policies of the old Progressive Conservatives. But how, we must ask, do these choices fit into the party’s prime goal of defeating the NDP and taking power? What will happen to the party’s policies once it takes power? Will social conservatives be expected to leave their beliefs at the door and support the party without any expectation of concessions, or will the progressive wing of the UCP have to learn to deal with homophobic or misogynistic decisions made by the party? Should women feel welcome in the party, or will they be abandoned once the party has a majority in the Legislature? Will members of the LGBTQ+ community find support that extends beyond lip service and into active advocacy? Whose rights will be upheld and whose will be trampled on when the convenient silence is finally broken?
Perhaps we should take Fildebrandt at his word, and attribute these gaps to the fact that social issues simply aren’t at the top of the UCP’s agenda. Alberta’s political right is obsessed with the NDP’s economic decisions, and so it could well be that the members of the new UCP are simply not considering anything beyond these budgetary issues. If the UCP takes power in the next election, it may be that they will focus entirely on economic reform and relegate social issues to item 101 on their to-do list. But if this is the case, what will happen after the UCP makes progress through those first 100 items? If the UCP is to last beyond one or two terms, it will have to decide where it stands on social issues.
The Wildrose Party was formed out of frustration with the centrist politics of the Progressive Conservatives, and the Danielle Smith-led floor crossing back into the PC party was met with scorn by the remaining Wildrose members. One now-former-PC member, Richard Starke, has opted not to join the UCP because the views of many former members of the PCs “are not welcome, and that the values and principles we believe in will not be part of the new party going forward.” The two parties existed separately for specific ideological reasons, and it’s worth asking what has changed in the past two years aside from the NDP’s majority government. The marriage of the two parties was so rushed that it seems entirely possible that neither party even checked to see if they liked the other, let alone if they were in love.