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Alberta’s political roller coaster takes another wild ride
By Mariam Ibrahim, Communications Staff

With the nails in the coffins of Alberta’s two main conservative political parties – the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose – what has emerged is a right-wing movement that, by all indications, intends to take its cues from the Ralph Klein rulebook.

The United Conservative Party (UCP), just months old, has already positioned itself as the defender of business, industry and right-wing special interest groups, such as the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and the Fraser Institute. If history is any indication, that will mean severe cuts, austerity budgets, and an attack on the public sector.

Jason Kenney, the party’s newly minted leader, spearheaded and completed the merge, birthed a new party and then took over its reins – all in less than two years. He has repeatedly vowed the party will be a “free-enterprise coalition,” intent on bringing back the so-called “Alberta advantage.”

The UCP clearly looks back fondly at Alberta’s Ralph Klein era, when the former premier eliminated the provincial debt at a devastating impact to public services and infrastructure, the costs of which we’re still paying for today. Thousands of public sector workers were laid off as public services were privatized. Albertans wouldn’t be wrong to fear a UCP government would usher in the same drastic cuts.

Kenney has so far shied away from identifying the specific policies the new right-wing party is proposing. However, while the UCP won’t hold its first convention until May 2018 and has so far focused on anger and opposition to all NDP policies, that doesn’t mean it’s a party without a past.

All of its 26 MLAs have a history in Alberta’s legislature – a record of votes, debates and proposed legislation. Kenney himself may not have a history in Alberta’s legislature, but, as a former Conservative Member of Parliament, he does carry a long and clear record that shows Albertans where his priorities lie: social and financial conservatism built on inflammatory rhetoric and divisive politics.

“We face an uncertain future due to the shifting political landscape that could result in a government formed by the United Conservative Party following the next provincial election. Although the UCP is a new party in Alberta politics, its leader is an old-school basher of public sector workers and their unions. He continues to roll out tired rhetoric about the need to cut services and attack the public sector,” said AUPE President Guy Smith.

“The UCP could be very dangerous to the future of the services that our members proudly provide and that Albertans rely on every single day.”

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Kenney swooped into the Alberta political scene after Stephen Harper’s Conservatives lost the 2015 federal election to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals. Soon after that electoral loss, Kenney set his sights on Alberta and its top prize: the premier’s office. He returned with a plan to bring together Alberta’s fractured conservative parties and movements on the extreme right.

Kenney and his backers quickly began pushing a message of conservative unity at all costs, a message former Wildrose leader Brian Jean seemed less than enthusiastic about, at least at first. But conservatives, angry at the notion that the NDP had been elected to government, didn’t let up. Within months it was clear Kenney’s agenda was moving forward like a steamroller, no matter what came in the way.

The PC party launched into a leadership race that quickly became a referendum on the fate of the party: Stick with the status quo or fall in line behind Kenney for a marriage of conservatives. The race itself was a magnet for controversy: Calgary MLA Sandra Jansen dropped out after becoming a target for sexist insults and harassment, and Kenney’s campaign was accused of dirty political tricks. Despite the controversies, or maybe because of them, Kenney won the leadership with 75 per cent of the vote.

By then, though, it was already becoming clear this was less a merger and more a takeover: Wildrose members had been encouraged to buy memberships to the PC party and vote in the leadership race. Many of the more moderate Tories began to feel like their party identity had been swallowed and ultimately stayed home instead of casting a ballot. By the end of the race, the party had lost three MLAs: Jansen, who later joined the NDP and has since been named infrastructure minister, Richard Starke, the only MLA who has kept the PC party banner in the legislature, and Rick Fraser, who now sits as an independent member. For outside observers, it was a clear signal that, despite the loud calls for unity, fissures had grown to wide chasms.

But undeterred and with the PC party leadership done and dusted, Kenney turned his attention to the next goal: merging the Wildrose and PC parties, a task accomplished with ease last July. Soon Kenney and Jean emerged as the two main leadership contenders for the new UCP, but before long it was clear Kenney had the conservative momentum behind him.

In the lead up to the official vote his win was treated as a given, with various political watchers and pundits calling it a coronation as more and more conservative MLAs and federal MPs gave him their endorsements. Indeed, over his political career Kenney has revealed himself to be a shrewd and effective fundraiser, amassing funds that easily outstripped his competition, not to mention a particular prowess for consolidating power and eliciting fierce loyalty from his lieutenants and advocates.

It became official in October 2017, just days before the fall legislature session opened: The new party’s MLAs marched into the legislature, carrying a new name but the same old conservative policies that they had been advocating for all along.

“We can expect the policies put forward by this party to be focused on privatization, public sector cuts, breaks for big business and attacks on unionized workers,” said AUPE Vice-President Susan Slade. “They may have a new name, but it’s the same old story, and the outcome is always the same: everyday Albertans suffer.”

Kenney has already begun the next step in his plan. Former UCP member Dave Rodney resigned as MLA for Calgary-Lougheed to make room for Kenney to win a legislature seat in a byelection, which was scheduled for Dec. 18, after press time.

But even without a seat in the legislature, the UCP leader has been making it clear his party wants a return to the past, harkening back to the dark days of the Klein era that saw so many public sector workers laid off and so many services cut and privatized. In fact, the party’s first major fundraiser in late November 2017 was a $150 per ticket event called the “Ralph Revival.”

“The UCP and Jason Kenney’s focus on the Klein era signals to us the necessity to prepare for a potential fight, yet again. We are known in this province as a union that stands up for the Alberta way – working hard, talking straight and keeping your promises,” President Smith said.