Alberta UCP Leader Jason Kenney is leading in fundraising, has polls in his favour and is in the same camp as a number of key provinces in their opposition to federal carbon pricing.
But criticism over the handling of internal party-nomination races and a former ally now leading a new conservative party – an entity with ties to Alberta separatist movements – is threatening a mostly sunny summer for the United Conservative Party boss. There are some cracks in the political foundation Mr. Kenney has built in the lead-up to a May, 2019, provincial election against Alberta’s NDP government.
On Friday, Derek Fildebrandt, a former UCP member of the Legislative Assembly who now sits as an independent, formally unveiled his new political vehicle – the Freedom Conservative Party of Alberta. The outspoken Mr. Fildebrandt, a fiscal hawk who was tossed from the caucus earlier this year after a succession of small but ugly political controversies, will be the party’s interim leader and its first MLA.
The party is meant to give “grassroots conservatives, libertarians and Alberta patriots” a new option. It “will demand the immediate repatriation of all powers under the Constitution that our governments have ceded to Ottawa. We will take back direct control over the CPP, EI, tax collection, the Firearms Act and immigration,” he said on Friday. The party does not support Ottawa’s purchase of the Trans Mountain pipeline and says it will demand a renegotiation of Alberta’s place in Confederation.
“Right now, Alberta is treated as a colony,” Mr. Fildebrandt said.
From Mr. Fildebrandt’s point of view, the new party is also about listening to grassroots members and making sure nomination battles are above reproach. He accuses the UCP of running interference in nomination battles to get women or minority candidates selected, and said “independent-minded” political aspirants are being locked out.
Still, there is no plan to form government. The Freedom Conservatives will only field candidates in constituencies – mostly in rural areas and small towns – where the NDP has no chance of winning. “Under no circumstance do we want to help a single socialist get elected,” Mr. Fildebrandt said, referring to vote-splitting that could help the New Democrats hold on to power.
Mr. Fildebrandt’s views will be seen as extreme by some and are a throwback to the foundation of the Reform and Wildrose parties, which were based on populist conservatism. They also evoke the Firewall Letter ideas espoused by Stephen Harper nearly two decades ago. NDP cabinet minister Shannon Phillips characterized the new party as one created out of bruised conservative egos: “They splinter because they’re not focused on Albertans. They’re focused on power and they’re self-absorbed.”
But where Mr. Fildebrandt’s party could win support is from the unease some right-leaning voters still have with Mr. Kenney, and whether he will really listen to party members on policy. There is also increasing anger in the province over pipeline delays and hostility to Alberta’s oil and gas industry from other parts of the country – which has led to more recent murmuring about provincial rights and separation.
Although Mr. Fildebrandt says the Freedom Conservatives are a brand-new political entity, an earlier incarnation was called the Separation Party. And Bob Lefurgey, the interim president for the Freedom Conservatives, advocated for Alberta to be become a sovereign state as recently as last year. One section of the new party’s founding principles states that “Alberta will remain the most loyal and patriotic province in Confederation, if treated justly.”
Mr. Fildebrandt said it is not a separation party, but added: “I think it’s fair to say that a lot of people are losing faith in Confederation”
This week, Mr. Kenney tried both to ignore Mr. Fildebrandt and to criticize his new political vehicle. “This is a project to gratify the ego of a discredited MLA,” Mr. Kenney said.
The two men have differing accounts of a feud that began over Mr. Fildebrandt’s push to run in a redrawn constituency where one of the UCP’s few female MLAs, Leela Aheer, wanted the nomination. Mr. Kenney says he suggested Mr. Fildebrandt run somewhere else rather than challenge an incumbent caucus member for the nomination. Mr. Fildebrandt says Mr. Kenney told him he could run in any other constituency, as long as it was open or against a male incumbent. “That was the beginning of the fallout between us.”
This week, Mr. Kenney also noted Mr. Fildebrandt’s political indiscretions, including subletting his taxpayer-subsidized accommodation and double-expensing some meals in recent years. He was also charged − and eventually found guilty − with hitting a neighbour’s vehicle and leaving the scene. He also pleaded guilty to illegal hunting, shooting a deer on private property, earlier this year. In February, Mr. Kenney announced Mr. Fildebrandt hadn’t fully disclosed his legal troubles to the party and would not be allowed to return to caucus and would not run under the party’s banner in the 2019 election.
“Every day, he’s proving the wisdom of our decision in this respect,” Mr. Kenney said in an interview.
But Mr. Fildebrandt’s announcement on Friday caps off a week where Mr. Kenney and the UCP have had to defend themselves against a string of less-flattering stories from local constituencies. On the weekend, the party rejected a candidate from its Brooks-Medicine Hat race for his comments attacking the Muslim faith. This week, the party had to defend its decision not to release an internal party report on voting irregularities that led to the resignation of one of its legislature members, Prab Gill. Mr. Kenney said that decision was made to protect whistle-blowers.
Earlier in July, the UCP had celebrated the fact they had raised more than $1-million in just three months this year – in a provincial system where corporate and union donations to parties are banned. And the party easily won July’s two provincial by-elections.
With a report from The Canadian Press