Jason Kenney is reaping what he sowed with Alberta’s social conservatives

Jen Gerson: The UCP leader finds himself in a corner he designed, built and painted, shrugging off the wishes of members he drew to the party in the first place
Jason Kenney
Jason Kenney speaks to the media at his first convention as leader of the United Conservative Party in Red Deer, Alta., Sunday, May 6, 2018.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh

It should have been a gem of a weekend for Alberta’s United Conservative Party; indeed, in some ways, it was. Sunny, warm. A conservative party banded together in record time. Members came out in large numbers to the founding convention in Red Deer, ostensibly to craft the many policies that would guide the rightful rulers of the province to victory and prosperity once more.

I’m sure it would have been a crowning weekend, had it not been for the unfortunate vision of leader Jason Kenney running around, waving his arms, and mumbling contradictory incantations in a desperate bid to shoo the many chickens that had finally come home to roost.

The UCP should “reinstate parental opt-in consent for any subjects of a religious or sexual nature, including enrollment in extracurricular activities/clubs or distribution of any instructional material related to these topics,” motion R030 read.

The word “extracurricular” is the tell, here. This is a clear reference to a long-simmering issue in Alberta: gay-straight alliances. Kenney’s own public statements on GSAs has, uh, evolved since his days on the campaign trail, but the motion is a signal to those within the party who believe these benign after-school clubs that convene to help gay kids feel supported are, in fact, gay indoctrination chambers, denying parents their God-given right to make their kids not gay.

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Kenney called the motion “poorly worded” and said the party would simply not be adopting R030 into the platform. “A United Conservative government will not be changing law or policy to require notification of parents when kids join GSAs. We will not do that. You can take that to the bank.”

If you speak that quote aloud, you can hear the faint hiss of chicken feathers in the breeze.

The motion was neither poorly worded, nor ill-considered. No fewer than three MLAs asked the crowd to vote against it. One, former interim leader Ric McIver, literally begged.

“This is about outing gay kids,” McIver told a jeering crowd, according to the CBC. “Don’t be called the Lake of Fire party, I’m begging you.”

As if that wasn’t enough to derail any good news story coming out of the convention, the party then passed another motion demanding that minors not be subjected to “invasive” medical procedures without parental consent. This managed to earn the vocal appreciation of both anti-abortion and anti-vaccination activists.

A motion that could be used to stop a child from receiving life-saving medicine to prevent common diseases, and force that same child to give birth against her will is a real marvel of a rhetorical horror show. Truly, this is a united conservative party.

The similarities, here, to Ontario PC leader Doug Ford’s own statements on abortion—that he would welcome legislation demanding parental consent—are worth noting.

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I’ve been reluctant to spend much time on it because legislation of this type would be so obviously unconstitutional that it would likely be challenged in court before it could ever be plausibly enacted.

The courts have already decided that parents can’t deny their children access to life-saving medical interventions due to the adults’ own religious beliefs. It’s a fever dream that imagines that by dint of legislation a parent is suddenly going to be able to force his teenage daughter to give birth against her will despite all medical advice.

Of course, grandstanding and turnabouts are nothing new. Canada already has a tradition of holding conventions to consult the party’s outer court on policy matters—only to ignore those measures deemed unelectable by the inner circles.

Kenney seems willing play his part.

“I will take the resolutions adopted today as important input, but I hold the pen on the platform,” he told reporters at the close of the convention. “Ultimately the leader is responsible for producing a balanced, winning platform. That’s my intention.”

The problem, here, is that Kenney has backed himself into a corner that he designed, built and painted in a bid to renovate the decrepit Progressive Conservative party as if it were some kind of cheap flip on HGTV.

He won the leadership by explicitly avoiding running on any kind of policy platform.

He called it the People’s Grassroots Guarantee.

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The guarantee seems to be gone from the web, now, but the original speech was helpfully cached:

“We must develop policy the same way that we created the new party—democratically, with the grassroots members in charge. We must get the democratic horse in front of the policy cart,” he said last year.

Conservative parties questioned about the presence of social conservative activist connections and policies so often respond with a careful “tsk tsk.” This is a “big tent” party. It welcomes everyone.

Which usually means, in practice, that party barons happily sap the time, energy and money of socially conservative activists while giving little to nothing back on the policy front. Abortion and gay rights are not the sort of things that respectable conservatives legislate. Not if they want to get elected.

By comparison, this is a party that must feel very confident in both its inevitable victory and its leader to be ignoring all the old cautions about “electability.” To be reviving the long-lost culture battles for sport.

Kenney is different from the poobahs of the past. He’s a genuine and devout Catholic who shows up to a church and listens to the sermons. He has a long history of supporting anti-abortion causes and the like.

And he made this guarantee:

“Our conservative coalition fractured in recent years partly because leaders began telling people what to think, rather than listening to them. We must not repeat that mistake. We’ve had enough arrogant, top-down leadership. We need servant leadership that empowers grassroots Albertans, instead of dictating our new party’s policies to them.”

With more than 2,600 UCP members attending the convention, Kenney himself billed the event as the “largest political convention in Alberta’s history.” Now we know why. The social conservatives flocked to the big tent in search of a cozy roost.

And can anyone blame them for imagining that with one of their own at the helm and the wind at their backs, this time it would be different?