Duane Bratt is a political science professor and Chair, Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies, at Mount Royal University in Calgary
The Wildrose Party was looking strong in the polls in the 2012 Alberta election, with its charismatic leader Danielle Smith leading the charge against a Progressive Conservative dynasty seen to have gotten long in the tooth. But that all changed when a 2011 blog post by Allan Hunsperger, a Pentecostal pastor who was running for the party in Edmonton, was unearthed just a week before election day. Mr. Hunsperger, responding to Lady Gaga’s pro-LGBTQ rights song Born this Way, wrote that gays and lesbians would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.”
But Wildrose leader Ms. Smith refused to remove Mr. Hunsperger as a candidate. Albertans took his words and her decision to the voting booths a week later. The “lake of fire” episode contributed to the Progressive Conservatives claiming its come-from-behind 12th straight election. And what hurt the Wildrose was not just Mr. Hunsperger’s comments – but Ms. Smith’s inaction.
Seven years later, it feels like history is repeating itself in Alberta. On Tuesday, a 2013 guest sermon at a Baptist church from UCP MLA Mark Smith surfaced in which he stated: “You don’t have to watch any TV for any length of time today where you don’t see on the TV programs them trying to tell you that homosexuality and homosexual love is good love. Heck there are even people out there, I could take you to places on the website, I’m sure, where you could find out that there’s … where pedophilia is love.” Not long afterward, Mr. Smith’s 2015 memo as the Wildrose’s education critic emerged, in which he argued that homosexual teachers could and should be fired from Christian schools.
But Mr. Kenney has refused to remove Mr. Smith as a UCP candidate. Last week, conservative talk radio host Charles Adler confronted Mr. Kenney on this and other issues, and he didn’t fully apologize or take responsibility, instead deflecting and waffling.
And yet, while Ms. Smith suffered by not abandoning Mr. Hunsberger, it is unlikely that Mr. Kenney will be punished at the polls much at all.
This might register as something of a surprise, since Mr. Kenney’s decision is arguably more damaging. Keeping Mr. Smith as a UCP nominee only fuels a pre-existing narrative about the UCP leader and LGBTQ rights. The Sprawl, a small Calgary-based journalism outfit, reported on Mr. Kenney’s efforts to help defeat a domestic-partnership law in San Francisco while he was a university student there that resulted in men being prevented from visiting their dying same-sex partners in the hospital and hospice during the AIDS crisis. The NDP also put out an attack ad featuring Mr. Kenney speaking as a Canadian Alliance MP in 2000, bragging about what he did. In 1998, he called on then-premier Ralph Klein to use the notwithstanding clause to overturn the Vriend decision, which made it illegal to fire someone for their sexual orientation. In 2005, as an MP, he explicitly opposed same-sex marriage, saying “gays can marry, but not each other.” And now, while campaigning for Alberta’s premiership, he’s opened the door to reversing some aspects of high-school gay-straight alliances (GSAs) by exempting religious schools, banning the prohibition on parental notification and not requiring principals to “immediately” grant student requests to form a GSA.
Ultimately, despite Mr. Kenney’s long, divisive record on the issue, and despite Ms. Smith’s personal support for LGBTQ rights, the major difference is this: Alberta’s economic situation is completely different.
In 2012, Alberta’s economy was booming, and that gave the governing PCs more room to change the channel. Able to boast of strong economic stewardship, it was easier to pivot from the criticism of entitled PCs to stoking fear over the Wildrose’s stance on social issues. Now, however, Alberta is mired in a years-long economic downtown. More than 130,000 people have lost their jobs, investment has dried up, and budget deficits have skyrocketed. A recent poll by Janet Brown Opinion Research asked an open-ended question of Albertans on what the top issues were, and the top three were the economy, pipelines and jobs. LGBTQ issues did not even register in the survey.
It’s also worth noting that in 2012, the major players were the PCs and Wildrose, both fundamentally conservative parties. Skittish voters could more easily move from Wildrose back to the familiar PCs than between the right-wing UCP and the left-wing NDP, which has only served one term in Alberta government.
So while Albertans may fundamentally disagree with Jason Kenney and Mark Smith’s views of LGBTQ rights, that’s unlikely to hurt the UCP’s strong electoral chances. The bigger question might be whether Albertans will remember this if the party does win, which is likely to happen. Questions around character and core moral values, after all, are problems for candidates and premiers alike.