by Donovan Makus
With the municipal elections scheduled for the 16th, you would think we would be able to enjoy a respite from elections for a while. But not to fear, the political animal in all of us will not hunger for long knowing that Alberta’s provincial political scene is shifting into high gear as the UCP Leadership Race heats up.
To understand the significance of the UCP leadership race, we need to take a step back and examine the events of May 6, 2015, the day after the seismic shift in Albertan politics that created our present NDP majority. PCs and Wildrose supporters were angry; tweets were being flung back and forth, assigning blame to the other party for the NDP win, each accusing the other of “stealing” their votes and allowing the NDP to come up the middle to take 50 new seats. A new era, one that many Albertans had never seen, had begun. After all, the PCs had managed to hold their power for almost 44 years, a rarity for a Western democratic environment.
It is into this edgy environment that Jason Kenney later appeared to promise a solution. In many ridings, the PC and Wildrose votes combined would have been enough to beat the NDP candidate who actually won. What if Kenney could combine the two parties successfully? Although there were many hurdles and some unpleasant memories of past conflicts to overcome, Kenney succeeded. The Wildrose and PC parties merged to form the United Conservative Party. With the “yes” vote, the race for UCP Leader was on.
One aspect which shaped the UCP Leadership race before it even began was the man who didn’t run: Derek Fildebrandt. Fildebrandt had a high profile in Albertan politics and was widely viewed as positioning himself for a run at being UCP leader, going so far as to set up a political action committee. Unfortunately for Fildebrandt, multiple allegations regarding misuse of taxpayer funds arose, one of them being a particularly stinging accusation considering his role as Wildrose Finance Critic. As well, an allegation of failing to report a minor collision surfaced just as he was preparing to run. Taken together, these issues forced him to withdraw from the race. After being kicked out of the UCP caucus to sit as an independent, Fildebrandt expressed support for Kenney at a local event.
In this race, there are now three candidates: Brian Jean, Jason Kenney, and Doug Schweitzer. Paul Hinman, a former leader of the Wildrose Party, attempted to run, but couldn’t raise the $95,000 required to enter the race. Jeff Callaway was able to join the competition but dropped out at the beginning of October. Both Hinman and Callaway endorsed Kenney. Down to only three candidates, the ideological gaps appear. Kenney is running as the most conservative candidate, particularly on social issues, while Jean falls slightly to his left and Schweitzer stands closer towards the center of the political spectrum as a self-described social moderate and fiscal conservative.
The race started amicably enough with candidates focusing on attracting new members and exchanging veiled barbs with each other. Each of the candidates criss-crossed the province, trying to marshal new voters to their side one road trip at a time. After the membership cut-off to vote in the leadership race on September 29th, the pressure was on to convince UCP members that they were the one most likely to beat NDP government they all vowed to defeat.
As far as the current state of the race is concerned, it’s anyone guess; there has been no polling of present UCP members to determine who is leading. There have been polls of the general Albertan population where Jean is shown to be consistently ahead, a fact his campaign enjoys mentioning. However, when polls are recalibrated to include those who have been part of the PC and Wildrose parties in the past, Jean and Kenney are dead even at 42%. While these polls are useful for knowing what everyday Albertans think of the UCP race, they are not the ones voting: the polls’ audience consists of the significantly more conservative 86,000 or so UCP members.
After reading all this, why should we care? Why do the actions of roughly 86,000 Albertans matter to the rest of us? The number one reason is that polling shows that the UCP is all but guaranteed to retain their official opposition status and potentially form the government. This along with the next scheduled provincial election just under two years away and with the UCP yet to introduce any significant policy to voters, these polls should be taken with a grain of salt. Beyond that, nominations, be it for MLA, MP, or Party Leader, are an amazing opportunity to shape politics. Concerned with post-secondary costs or the job market after graduation? The best time to get politicians to listen to you is when your vote counts the most: the nomination. If you only participate in politics on Election Day, you are only really choosing candidates that have already been selected by their party’s members. It only takes a precious few votes to sway a nomination; many MLAs won their nominations with less than 1,000 votes. In politics, there’s an old adage that’s often repeated: for every single person you convince to join your side at an event, they bring ten members of their family and friends to the voting booth. Even a small number of dedicated voters can turn an election. Races like this one reinforce the importance of each and every vote.