Opinion Opinion

The UCP and the dangers of frozen thinking

'An election platform has to look to the future'

Posted: January 26, 2018
Last Updated: January 26, 2018

The United Conservative Party's first convention in May is expected to reveal where leader Jason Kenney wants to take the party and the province. (Todd Korol/Canadian Press)

Jason Kenney's long campaign to unite Alberta's PC and Wildrose parties had one consistent theme: the pressing need to "restore the Alberta advantage."

For a year and half, the former Harper cabinet minister, now head of the United Conservative Party, repeated his mantra — "restore the Alberta advantage" — over and over again. And it was a great campaign catchphrase. It let Kenney say Alberta was off track and harken back to some golden era of the past.

But "the Alberta advantage" doesn't tell us what used to make the province better. Lower taxes? A balanced budget? Premiers willing to go toe to toe with Ottawa? The mantra let listeners fill in the details themselves.


Kenney kept it at a high-level and built the UCP into big, broad tent for Alberta's right-leaning voters. Now, the next election is only a bit more than a year away. Is that "Alberta advantage" mantra enough to win? The UCP's upcoming first convention, in early May, will give us the first hints of where Kenney and his party want to take the province.

Wildrose supporters celebrated in July when officials announced 95 per cent of members voted in favour of uniting with Progressive Conservatives to form the new United Conservative Party. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

History, as future

One thing Kenney's current mantra does tell right-leaning voters is when the province was better.

"The Alberta Advantage" was the slogan of Ralph Klein's populist early days as premier. His mix of low taxes, balanced budgets, private liquor stores and keeping government out of economic development schemes not only rocketed his PCs to electoral invincibility, it made Alberta a leader in conservative political action.

Alberta's right-leaning voters are still proud of those happy times.

Over and over, Kenney reminded Klein nostalgics he had even helped form Klein's agenda. As head of the Alberta Taxpayers Federation, Kenney pressed Klein to scrap MLA pensions, balance the provincial budget, keep spending in line and rein in provincial taxes. In his official bio, Kenney tells us that 25 years ago, on "issue after issue" Klein took Kenney's advice and "turned it into sound government policy."

Klein's heyday was more than 25 years ago. Can nostalgia for the Klein agenda carry the UCP through the next election? Is the old Klein coalition just waiting to be put back together?


Nostalgia as policy and unanswered questions

Kenney promised party activists that UCP members would write the party's policy book in a bottom-up process.

The party's policy braintrust has circulated a draft policy book to serve as a starting point for the grassroots discussion. It will be debated and amended across the province before being put up for approval at that convention.

Not surprisingly the draft is shot through with nostalgia for Klein's "Alberta advantage" agenda.

Former premier Ralph Klein is remembered for his 'Alberta advantage' agenda. UCP Leader Jason Kenny appears to be evoking that spirit in his party's draft policy book. (Larry MacDougall/Canadian Press)

If approved, it will commit the UCP to: balancing the provincial budget, returning to a 10 per cent flat income tax, and — an echo of Klein's privatization of liquor stores — to keeping government out of the marijuana business. The document even repeats Klein's old promise to let more Albertans pay for more medical services out of pocket — something he talked about but did little to deliver on.

A good conservative party should look to the past when formulating its principles. Conservatives like to "conserve."

But an election platform has to look to the future. Voters want to know what a party will do in power, and the answers of 1993 might sound a little stale 25 years later.


What will Kenney and the UCP say about the challenges facing Alberta in 2020? How will Alberta oil producers get their increased production to market, and capture higher world prices for the province's valuable commodity? How will it attract private-sector investment again? How will it rein in health spending if the population continues to age? How can Alberta get off the roller-coaster ride of oil and gas revenue and stop the feast-or-famine cycle of provincial spending?

Kenney is serious about public policy debates. In Ottawa, he always pushed for forward thinking on matters of state. A man of faith, Kenney worries about the government's impact on the social fabric, the health of communities, volunteerism and social inclusion. How will he blend the bigger picture into whatever UCP members approve in May? Just how will Kenney govern if he gets the chance?

Breezy policy and little new thinking

If Kenney becomes premier, he will no doubt start by repealing the NDP's carbon tax and challenging Justin Trudeau's national carbon tax in court. Then what?

UCP activists talk breezily about slowing the growth in provincial spending, by far the highest, per capita of any provincial government in Canada. If Alberta could get its spending down to B.C.'s levels, the budget would be back in balance and we could stop borrowing.

But the UCP policy draft gives few indications of how public spending might be reined in for four or five years.

'The NDP are way behind in the polls and Kenney seems to have the momentum. But the economy is growing again, and the NDP's political machine is just starting to turn its mind to the 2019 campaign.'

If a Kenney government is going to be an incubator for new conservative policy ideas, the Klein nostalgia of the current UCP policy draft isn't going to help much. Talking up the mid-1990s brings Alberta's conservatives together. It's safe ground for the loyalists. But the challenge isn't party unity any longer. It's the bigger game of winning an election. Will Kenney push his followers to take more chances and think harder about the future?


Frozen thinking for the future?

The policy draft will be amended before it is finalized, and Kenney's team will massage it before they produce an election platform, let alone (if he becomes Premier) a governing agenda. In the meantime, has the United Conservative Party taken Kenney's direction to "restore the Alberta advantage" literally, as an invitation to freeze its thinking in the mid-1990s?

And if so, how safe is it for UCP activists to assume the province will follow them?

The NDP are way behind in the polls and Kenney seems to have the momentum. But the economy is growing again, and the NDP's political machine is just starting to turn its mind to the 2019 campaign.

The UCP policy debate might not matter if you simply assume the party and its leader can't possibly lose the next provincial election. And if you think victory is a foregone conclusion, then, by all means, indulge your nostalgia for 1993.

But back in 2015, a lot of conservatives assumed they could never lose to the NDP.

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This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Ian Brodie

Ian Brodie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary and was the chief of staff to former prime minister Stephen Harper. His next book, At the Centre of Government, will be published by McGill-Queen’s University Press in May.