Michelle Rempel Garner is one step closer to entering Alberta’s United Conservative Party leadership race.
The Calgary Nose Hill MP tweeted late Wednesday that she’s “giving a provincial leadership bid serious consideration” and “will no longer be participating in the federal Conservative leadership race” – which gives her an exit from her role as co-chair of Patrick Brown’s floundering federal leadership campaign.
The confirmation of her long-discussed interest in the UCP race will rile some party members wary of federal heavyweights moving to provincial politics as a second act, as Jim Prentice and Jason Kenney did. But the entry of the high-profile MP who is difficult to pin down politically – being both a vocal advocate of LGBTQ rights and supporter of Alberta autonomy and Western Canada’s oil and gas sector – would add a big name to a contest that already stands out for the number of women vying for the top job.
If you want to look at where the UCP contest is going, and who is leading the break from the leadership of Alberta’s current Premier, look at the four women who’ve already stated their interest in running in the Oct. 6 contest. They account for half the declared candidates. And they represent a broad range of political views within Alberta’s conservative movement, with each distancing herself from the outgoing Mr. Kenney in one way or another.
From the right there’s Danielle Smith, who comes with long experience but also baggage, having been the key player in what would become a politically disastrous floor-crossing to Mr. Prentice’s governing Progressive Conservatives in 2014.
“I’m hoping people will forgive me for that,” said the former Wildrose Party leader, who has long acknowledged it was a mistake. “But I think the message of unity is as strong today as it ever was.”
“We need less Ottawa in our lives” is a key slogan of Ms. Smith’s campaign, which focuses on federal policies she says have landlocked the province’s resources and destroyed livelihoods. If she becomes premier, she will introduce an Alberta sovereignty act, though the details of how it will actually protect provincial rights and interests has yet to be fleshed out.
Ms. Smith is also wading into pandemic-era issues that will be off-putting to many, such as promoting amnesty for pastors or business owners who faced charges for violating health restrictions. She criticizes Mr. Kenney for saying before his leadership review this year that the mainstream party was under siege from bigoted and extremist elements. She says that’s not her experience with those who protested COVID-19 policies. “It’s just been a lot of concerned moms and dads, worried about the impact on their kids.”
There’s Leela Aheer, the UCP MLA for Chestermere-Strathmore who went from criticizing a Sky Palace dinner – where it appeared the Premier and other cabinet ministers violated pandemic health restrictions – in June, 2021, to openly calling for Mr. Kenney’s resignation as COVID-19 cases rose in September. In between, she was removed from her post as minister of culture, multiculturalism and the status of women. At her campaign launch last week, she spoke about her grassroots campaign and the absence of “the Harper machines or the Kenney machines.”
I asked her whether she ever wonders if she’s in the right party. “I think home is what you make it,” she replied.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to shift the culture, and that’s my goal.” Ms. Aheer said, adding that she wants to rebuild trust with voters. She also wants the legislature to be filled with “people who know and love Alberta.”
Rajan Sawhney, who resigned as transportation minister when she declared her candidacy this week, is calling for a public inquiry into how the province handled the pandemic. She says she’s doing this with input from Airdrie-East MLA Angela Pitt, her campaign chair, who hasn’t shied away from criticizing her own government’s handling of the crisis and has argued for fewer health restrictions. “Her stance on COVID was very different than mine,” Ms. Sawhney said, but they are colleagues and have respectful conversations on those questions.
She is also speaking about her time as community and social services minister and what she says was her push against more dramatic cuts to the province’s Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped program as the government tried to get its weakened finances under control in 2020.
“The cuts were going to be horrific,” Ms. Sawhney said in an interview, adding that after months of making the case of how damaging the cuts would be, Mr. Kenney, the cabinet and the caucus all came around to her way of thinking. It took a toll, politically. “It was the toughest fight of my life.”
And Rebecca Schulz, who resigned as children’s services minister this week to enter the race, has already managed to secure heavy-hitting support from her mentor Rona Ambrose, as well as former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall and Alberta Health Minister Jason Copping. She touts her work striking a deal with Ottawa on affordable child care last November as a major accomplishment.
Ms. Schulz says she’s proud of work the UCP has done but knows that in many cases people didn’t like the “tone” of the government. She says that even though she was in cabinet she wasn’t a part of Mr. Kenney’s inner circle. “We need a leader who will bring our party members back to the table, not only provide competent and disciplined leadership, but show compassion and common sense,” she said of her leadership push.
No one is officially a candidate yet. First each will be required to meet the high bar of putting up a non-refundable entry fee of $150,000 – double the $75,000 it was in 2017 – along with $25,000 that will be returned as long as no rules are breached. Eligible candidates must also get a nomination petition signed by at least 1,000 party members from across the province by next month. They have to be vetted by the party.
For the NDP, the attention that will be focused on the UCP leadership race in the coming months makes a highly competitive political battle in Calgary during the next election even more so. For the UCP, there’s still the risk that its slate of leadership candidates tilts wildly toward Calgary, perhaps at the expense of gaining ground in other parts of the province. The question for every candidate is whether they can unite the disparate parts of the UCP, then appeal to Alberta voters as a whole.
This isn’t a column designed to knock the men. But it’s hard not to see that the women, often underrepresented in politics, make up some of the most compelling candidates in the UCP contest. They also better represent the diversity of the province. It sets up a scenario in which the May, 2023, provincial election could feature the NDP’s Rachel Notley squaring off against a woman leading the UCP.
It’s possible, and intriguing, but difficult for many to imagine: Rarely are truly competitive political contests between women.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.