One year before an Alberta election, Jason Kenney is riding high: His United Conservative Party is far and away leading in the polls as voters flock to his combative vision for defending the province in all matters related to energy and the economy.
But a single policy resolution calling for parental consent in the case of students joining any school club – aimed squarely at giving them a say in their children’s involvement in peer-support groups designed to help LGBTQ students – threw a wrench in the mostly triumphant tone of the inaugural policy convention for the nine-month-old party. The resolution asked the government to reinstate parental opt-in consent for any subjects of a sexual or religious nature in classes, or in extracurricular activities and clubs. At least three UCP MLAs spoke against it.
“This is about outing gay kids,” said the party’s caucus whip Ric McIver, speaking against the policy resolution shortly before it was passed by 57 per cent of members.
“This will really, severely hurt our chances of winning – and don’t do that to yourself.”
Mr. Kenney himself was quick to play down the policy resolution, saying it will have no bearing on his party’s election platform. Other party members scrambled to say it’s not about the party not supporting young LGBTQ students – it was a vote on the paramountcy of parental rights. “I really don’t think this motion comes down to outing gay kids,” said Harrison Fleming, Alberta co-ordinator for LGBTory, a conservative group.
He said he was disappointed the policy resolution passed, but his group has received great support from members. Mr. Fleming said the policy is a “backlash” from parents who feel that their right to make decisions about their children’s education is under attack by the NDP government – a leading theme of the weekend policy convention.
The governing NDP have built much of their defensive political strategy on attacking the socially conservative elements of the opposition conservative party. When Mr. Kenney said last year in some cases, subject to the judgment of school officials, parents should be informed if their children join school gay-straight alliances, the NDP enacted a law that makes it illegal for schools to inform parents of youth involvement in the GSAs.
On Sunday, Alberta’s Education Minister David Eggen travelled to the convention site in Red Deer to speak on the topic again. Mr. Kenney, he said, “had grand ambitions to show one thing to Alberta, and lo and behold, he has shown something completely different.”
Hours later, Mr. Kenney – who was in private meetings throughout the policy debate – said the resolution was badly worded and he wouldn’t have voted for it if he was on the floor. He said it doesn’t change his party’s position in support of the peer-support groups, and that his party still does not support mandatory notifications of parents regarding student involvement in GSAs. He suggested the motion was more about concerns from parents about religious or sex-ed studies being taught without their consent.
While he has repeatedly said grassroots members of the party are in charge, on Sunday Mr. Kenney said, “Guess what, I’m the leader. I get to interpret the resolution and its relevance to party policy.”
But critics say there are still many questions about where the UCP stands on social issues. Mr. Kenney has long said he will not legislate on hot-button social issues if he becomes premier. But on Thursday, his caucus walked out of the legislature rather than debate or vote on a government bill to create protest-free zones around abortion clinics.
During the convention itself, parental rights in education and health care were major themes. The party also passed other contentious motions, including one that minor children are “protected from harm” by requiring parental consent for “all invasive medical procedures” on children – a policy that could be interpreted as restricting abortion access.
It was a weekend where Mr. Kenney laid out ambitions for building a coalition with other-liked-minded provincial leaders such as Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe and Ontario Progressive Conservative Leader Doug Ford in fighting Ottawa’s imposition of a pan-Canadian carbon price. He gave a fiery Saturday night address where he promised that if he wins government, he would staff a rapid response war room in government to quickly rebut mistruths about Alberta’s oil industry and strengthen the provinces resolve to build the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion. He said he would also launch a special legislature investigation into “the sources of foreign funds behind the anti-Alberta special interests.”
Mr. Kenney cheered on Twitter when delegates voted 98 per cent in favour of repealing Alberta’s $30 a tonne carbon tax and opposed the imposition of any federal carbon price. On Sunday, he told reporters “we are going to be on war footing as a government, in opposing this well-resourced, strategic campaign to defame our key employer and industry.”
But the divergent views in Mr. Kenney’s “big tent” coalition were on display at many points during the weekend. Former interim federal Conservative leader Rona Ambrose – who will head a committee along with Laureen Harper to try to get more women to run for the UCP – said the abuse women face on social media is appalling.
“I have said to the president of Twitter Canada’s face that I think Twitter is a sewer for women, and I said that they need to make a lot of changes before it is a safe place,” Ms. Ambrose said.
At the same time, Heather Forsyth, a former MLA, said in a speech to members that arguments suggesting women are hampered by institutional and cultural barriers are “socialist crap” and labelled feminism “the F-word.”