Calgary

Bozo eruptions: Will gaffes on social issues affect Alberta election results?

The economy, not social issues such as LGBTQ rights, will be top of mind for Susan Yuen when she votes for the United Conservative Party in Alberta's election on Tuesday.

Voter says social issues on back burner

UCP Leader Jason Kenney has been dogged by revelations of racist and homophobic remarks by candidates. Experts say the comments are falling in a different atmosphere this election than last. (CBC)

The economy, not social issues such as LGBTQ rights, will be top of mind for Susan Yuen when she votes for the United Conservative Party in Alberta's election on Tuesday.

"The social issues, as important as they are, do take a back burner, because what good do the social issues have if people can't survive and cannot feed their families?" she asked at a pro-oil rally in Calgary last week.

The accountant has seen 30 to 40 per cent of her colleagues at her oil and gas company get the chop.

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"We have to prioritize what's important and I think what's important right now is the economy and getting it back on track."

The right-of-centre UCP led by Jason Kenney has been dogged by revelations of racist and homophobic remarks by candidates in open nomination contests and during the campaign. Kenney's own history fighting LGBTQ rights as a young man has been put in the spotlight.

He pins it on social mores at the time and has said it's something he regrets.

It's a different economy and global political climate than in 2012, when several "bozo eruptions" saw the Wildrose Party blow its lead in the polls and lose the election to the Progressive Conservatives.

The phrase "lake of fire" — a reference to a Wildrose candidate's blog post describing where unrepentant gays would spend eternity — has become shorthand in Alberta for politically damaging bigotry.

In 2012 the economy was booming.

"When people are thinking about economy and jobs, they're not necessarily thinking about equity," said University of Calgary political scientist Melanee Thomas.

Thomas said she's bothered by the either/or framing around the economy and social issues in this election, because research shows that diversity tends to have big economic payoffs. For instance, it tends to attract and retain skilled workers of all orientations and backgrounds.

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"These things are the same issue," she said. "You do not get to separate them."

This election is also happening against the backdrop of a general swell in far-right populism and the attendant anti-immigrant sentiment espoused by U.S. President Donald Trump and the amorphous yellow-vesters.

"People might be more numb to it," said Lori Williams, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary. "The nerve is not as sensitive as it would have been in previous times."

Kenney has argued that the NDP has led a "fear-and-smear" campaign by harping on UCP gaffes, because the New Democrats can't defend their economic record in government. The NDP has been trying to woo small-c conservative voters unable to stomach views emerging from the UCP camp.

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley is trying to woo small-c conservative voters. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Kenny has distanced himself from remarks that led two star Calgary candidates to resign early in the campaign.

In March, CBC News obtained Facebook chat messages in which Caylan Ford said she was "saddened by the demographic replacement of white people in their "homelands."

Another candidate, Eva Kiryakos, said someone outside the party was trying to smear her by threatening to release online posts in which she called Muslim migrants in Europe "rapefugees" and took aim at transgender washrooms in schools. Kenney thanked Kiryakos for her "selfless" decision to step aside.

Other candidates have come under criticism, but remain in the race, including Mark Smith, who in a 2013 sermon mentioned pedophilia while suggesting homosexual relationships aren't "good love." Kenney condemned the remarks, but said he was confident Smith would live by the UCP's tolerant ethos if re-elected.

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Williams noted bozo eruptions didn't rear their heads until late in the 2012 campaign. In addition to the "lake of fire" debacle, another candidate suggested he was better able to lead his constituents because he was white. Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith also argued the science of human-caused climate change was unsettled.

"The impact was sudden and devastating in that particular case," but this time, it's been a prolonged "drip, drip, drip,"
Williams said.

"It has had an impact. The question is will it have enough of an impact to make a difference one way or the other."

She said she can't understand why, on a strategic level, Kenney hasn't been more strenuous in his condemnations.

"Certainly some people are questioning if there's some sort of debt owed to those (social conservative) constituencies within the party or if Jason Kenney himself is more sympathetic to some of those views."

Thomas suggested those who have espoused racist or white nationalist views seemed to have been dealt with more harshly than those who made homophobic comments.

"I don't think this is a bozo thing," she said. "I think this is understanding that social conservative voters put some conservative parties ahead."

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