By Drew Barnes on November 19, 2021.
It has been about one month since I launched the Rural Voice Discussion Paper, a proposal for a new approach to provincial politics in Alberta. The series can be found on my website, http://www.drewbarnes.ca/
In this report, I argued that over the past 50 years political parties have taken rural Alberta for granted while shifting away from the values and principles that form the foundation of the conservative movement in the name of electoral expedience. I also argued that by abandoning its rural base, the United Conservative Party has now lost the ability to win elections.
Since launching the paper, I received several questions about whether the UCP can recover. The short answer is: No.
The current situation
According to current polling, Premier Jason Kenney is the least popular premier in Canada. He has lost the trust of Albertans and has been a greater disappointment than Alison Redford. If an election were held today the NDP would win a large majority, sweeping Edmonton and claiming a majority of seats in Calgary.
Making matters worse, the NDP continues to out fundraise the UCP, the UCP loses memberships, local and provincial board members, and the longtime volunteers on which the party relies for election campaigns. Just this week, 22 UCP CA’s announced they had submitted motions to the governing board requesting a leadership review before March 1, 2022.
A toxic culture that can’t govern
Even worse than Kenney’s personal numbers is the toxic culture he and his political insiders have brought to Alberta politics. This has infected and soured the hope we had in a United Conservative Party.
Through the unity process and prior to the 2019 election, the UCP was founded on the principles of economic freedom, smaller government, grassroots democracy and defending Alberta’s rights within Canada.
What we got was a leadership election tainted by allegations of corruption and dirty tricks, a Calgary-centric cabinet, total disrespect to our voters “If that’s our ‘base’, we’ll need a new one…'”, and a complete lack of respect towards elected MLAs within the UCP caucus.
The pandemic, meanwhile, brought on a full revolt of the UCP’s rural base caused by the UCP government’s hypocrisy on health restrictions, and the premier’s flip-flops on vaccine mandates and vaccine passports. Images of the premier’s closest advisers flouting health restrictions even as the government prosecuted small business owners for violating these same restrictions became emblematic of a government that has lost touch with Albertans. This is now the established political culture of the UCP; dishonest, rudderless and toxic.
There is a movement within the UCP party currently seeking to replace Kenney with a leader more willing to embrace grassroots democracy. To succeed in the long term, the new leader would need to come from outside of government and immediately take steps to distance the party from Kenney’s team of political insiders.
The new leader would also need to have a track record of commitment to grassroots democracy, and the character necessary to do away with the dictatorial power Kenney has utilized to stay long past his best-before date. The party itself requires a constitutional and structural overhaul to guarantee that any future leader wouldn’t be able to turn it into such a toxic culture that seeks to control everything around it.
At the end of the day, the UCP is at best a failed attempt to bridge growing divides within the conservative movement. While the party was capable of defeating Notley and the NDP in 2019, we know that the next election won’t be about the NDP’s failures. The next election will be about the UCP’s failure to become what we had all poured our hopes and dreams into.
Without a compelling vision for our province that unites all conservatives, something the UCP has fully abandoned under Kenney, the party now exists solely for its leader’s own gratification. Albertans rejected this kind of PC party in 2015, and they will do so again in 2023.
If our goal is to prevent vote splitting and a second Notley NDP government, we need to start looking for alternatives now.
Drew Barnes is an independent MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat