Alberta Politics

The UCP wasn’t “taken over” — it was born this way

After the UCP was created in 2017, some referred to it as a “frankenparty” and others dubbed it an “unholy alliance”.

At the inaugural UCP AGM in 2018, I voted against the mandatory parental notification when kids join school clubs. A friend of mine was trying to leverage support to vote it down but it received more than enough support to pass.

At that same event, another friend told me that if a certain longtime PC volunteer didn’t manage to get enough votes for a position she was running for “the socons have taken over”. She did not get enough votes.

Some longtime PC supporters left the party after Jason Kenney won the leadership. Others believed they could continue to make a difference from the inside.

Kenney said he wasn’t worried about losing “disgruntled Tories” from the PC party, adding that the then-favoured landing spot, the Alberta Party, was “just a group of Liberals who are embarrassed by the Liberal label”.

It’s true that many Albertans are “embarrassed by the Liberal label” — in fact, it’s actually by design. That design also might explain why the NDP, and not the Liberals, are currently the sole threat to a conservative majority in the province.

Well-deserved unintended consequence trophy there, I should think… but I digress.

Slowly, after the merger was clinched, the new UCP brass severed connections with people who had worked to get province-wide support for the merger (on both sides). Longtime members, active volunteers, and even donors were frozen out.

Former PC MLA Dave Quest resigned from his local constituency association board in 2017 after the results were announced, saying “I truly believe the far-right-wing element of this new party will dominate it.”

During the 2019 campaign, a longtime member and former Progressive Conservative MLA told me that she didn’t “recognize (the people in her) own party”.

I’d only attended one — the final — Progressive Conservative convention but I couldn’t disagree with her description.

Although Kenney only brought up the “lunatics” and “kooky people” in his party when his leadership was under the microscope in 2022, they have been remarkably visible since the inaugural AGM when Kenney had to wave away questions about the membership’s policy preferences.

At that time, Kenney dismissed concerns by saying “I hold the pen” on the party’s platform.

Then, ,after the UCP formed government, Kenney seemed to have a handle on keeping the far right elements placated. That accommodation continued throughout the pandemic, which, some have argued, contributed to both the party’s, and his personal, dismal approval ratings.

Alberta autonomy was strongly supported by the membership at the 2019 policy convention. It didn’t matter then, much like it doesn’t seem to matter now, that all of the ideas meant to give more control to the Alberta government have been the subject of decades of research that has consistently demonstrated one thing: higher costs for Albertans.

Kenney the federalist tried to toe the line between Alberta’s firewall and his admiration for colonization of the rest of Canada, but perceived UCP leadership front-runner Danielle Smith has no such sentiment for Canada as a whole. I’d argue, in fact, Kenney’s desperation to see Harper’s firewall constructed has paved the way for Smith with the membership (that went from a combined PC/WR of 87,000 in 2017, to just 59,000 — a number UCP executive director Dustin van Vugt said had “doubled” ahead of Kenney’s leadership review — in 2022).

In 2020, the UCP membership once again refused to heed advice from elected officials on party policy, instead passing a motion to push for more private healthcare options in the province. Strathcona-Sherwood Park MLA Nate Glubish had spoken against the motion saying it would make it “awkward” for MLAs who had run on preserving public healthcare.

The powers that be were able to stop a motion to allow the membership to have more control over who could be candidates for the party, however.

Well into a pandemic by this time, Kenney couldn’t seem to find the right balance between making up things he wished were true and finding someone to give him good information. Torn between saying things people wanted to hear and being someone the province could count on, Kenney chose to be neither — to a vast majority of the province but he also struggled with the membership.

Donations were down, and the membership had dropped more than two-thirds while they were in government.

The policy convention in 2021 was more tame, with the focus being on Kenney’s leadership rather than the party faithful, but attendance was down from previous years and the protests were… different.

They were neither Handmaids (2018) nor public servants (2019) — no, in 2021, the protesters were against public health interventions infringing on their freedoms.

Kenney addressed those who were upset about government overseeing public health inside of the convention, though, and left the ones who didn’t pay to be heard to security (if that sounds at all familiar).

Even though there were likely pleasantries exchanged — Kenney said his confidence was “high” afterwards — and the 58 per cent of the membership who bothered to vote in his review still gave him a slim 51.4 per cent approval, Kenney finally got the message that his time was done.

It shouldn’t be a surprise to political observers that the united party served as a trojan horse for the politically shunned.

Aside from four years of full-coverage policy conventions, it’s precisely what happened with the federal CPC — the unelectables take over the mainstream political party, replace the insiders with those who couldn’t get their own party elected, and hide behind a new blue sign that can be sold as the same comforting place to park your vote.

Albertans, however, seem to have caught on to this trick faster than Canadians have with their federal cousins.

That’s why this leadership race is so important for the party – their next leader will have to sell the UCP transformation from that time a few months ago when Kenney was leader.

And the membership? I imagine they’ll keep pushing for the government they really want.

Until they get it, of course.

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political podcaster and commentator.
Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, or @politicalRnD for posts