Duane Bratt is a political science professor and chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
The allegations around Jeff Callaway’s campaign for the leadership of Alberta’s United Conservative Party refuse to go away.
Mr. Callaway has been described as the “kamikaze” candidate after entering the race, collaborating with the campaign of eventual winner and current Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, and attacking Brian Jean, the former Wildrose Party leader; Mr. Callaway dropped out late in the race and endorsed Mr. Kenney.
The former Alberta Election Commissioner Lorne Gibson, who was effectively fired by the Alberta UCP government in November, had levied more than $175,000 in administrative fines to individuals who violated election finance laws through donations to the Callaway campaign, which included such illegalities as accepting a $60,000 corporate donation and then funneling it back to the campaign in small amounts through a number of individuals. Now, the RCMP has gotten involved, investigating the allegations of donor fraud by Mr. Callaway’s campaign, as well as broader issues in the UCP leadership race, from missing voter kiosks to potential misuse of personal identification numbers, on the basis of cheating claims by former UCP members such as ex-MLA Prab Gill and donor Happy Mann.
Despite these unprecedented fines and an ongoing criminal investigation of a political party leadership race, it has not really gained traction in Alberta. It should.
Not only are these serious allegations – some ethical and some criminal – but the 2017 UCP leadership race determined the current Premier of Alberta. It also implicates current UCP MLAs such as Peter Singh, whose auto-shop business was raided by the RCMP seeking evidence about voter fraud in the UCP leadership race. The RCMP has interviewed at least five current Alberta cabinet ministers, three MLAs, current federal Conservative Party MP Tim Uppal, and key Kenney organizer Allan Hallman over these voter fraud allegations. It also implicates senior members of the Premier’s Office such as Matt Wolf who, based on documents and other evidence, was the chief conduit between the Kenney and Callaway campaigns. A special prosecutor from Ontario was appointed in July to lead the investigation.
The UCP’s crisis-response strategy has capably muted the outrage. When the CBC broke the story about the collusion between the Kenney and Callaway campaigns – days before the official start of the 2019 provincial election campaign – Mr. Kenney, UCP candidates and UCP-affiliated third parties all stopped public communication for two days. Mr. Kenney then responded with two talking points that have been repeated non-stop ever since: candidates working together occurs in all leadership races in all parties, and what really matters is defeating the NDP.
The first point is categorically false. Candidates may communicate and decide to support one another if they are defeated on an early ballot, but recruiting a kamikaze candidate, giving them talking points and advertising, creating a timeline for their withdrawal from the race, and possibly funding that candidate – none of that is normal. None of that occurs in other leadership races, or if it does, it should be found out and punished. Nevertheless, the claim has thrown the baby out with the bathwater; suspicious Albertans might now be led to believe that all party politics are corrupt.
The second talking point can be translated to its more explicitly cynical meaning: the ends justify the means. Cheating is okay, the UCP has argued, as long as you win. But this should really outrage UCP members who supported or voted for Mr. Jean, as this argument also implies that Mr. Jean would not have won the provincial election.
The latest developments involving the expansion of the RCMP investigation has not really generated much attention, and the reality is that unethical behaviour in a party leadership race, administrative fines, and criminal investigations rarely pass muster in defining a first-degree political scandal. The only thing that will potentially do so is if criminal charges are laid, and even that may be insufficient; if members of the Callaway campaign are charged, that won’t affect the Alberta government. The question of whether this goes from slow boil to potential eruption will hinge on whether senior Kenney campaign staff, officials in the Premier’s Office or cabinet ministers are charged.
When the NDP was elected in 2015, the party brought in a series of campaign finance reforms and extended them to party nominations and leadership races. They did so despite criticism, because while parties are private associations, they have a huge impact on politics; winning nominations and leadership races are necessary conditions to winning general elections. Even if the kamikaze-candidate scandal fails to cross the bar of scandal, this controversy remains conclusive evidence that party nomination and leadership races need accountability by a public agency, and should not just be regulated by the parties themselves.
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