Kenney's silence on hot-button issues frustrates some conservatives

Shop owner Brendan Hillson is a self-described conservative but says it's tough to puzzle out what, exactly, the United Conservative Party is all about.

Political expert says Jason Kenney is following a 'shut up' strategy for a broad conservative appeal

Carole, left, and Brendan Hillson love talking pastries and politics. (Helen Pike/CBC)

Brendan Hillson is a self-described conservative but says it's tough to sift out what, exactly, the United Conservative Party is all about.

The bakery owner in Medicine Hat, Alta., appreciates some of the party's positions on economic issues but has qualms with where it stands on social policies.

Brendan and his wife, Carole Hillson, made a bit of a splash last year when they sent two dozen, deep-fried pastries from their store to Drew Barnes, their local UCP MLA. The doughnuts were decorated in rainbow sprinkles and letters spelling out the message: "It's OK to be gay."

The couple felt compelled to send the message after 57 per cent of UCP members, at their founding convention, voted in favour of a resolution allowing parents to require consent if their child is being exposed to religious or sexual subjects in class or as part of an extracurricular club.

"They came out of their policy convention with something that I thought had nothing to do with governance," Brendan said this week, explaining his decision last May.

"It was just picking on gay people, right? And it was, I thought, completely out of the blue."

Now, as the election nears, he has even more questions about the party and its particular brand of conservatism.

"Is it that they're really moderates who say a few extreme things and get themselves involved in quite far-right things? Or is it more like they really are far-right people who are pretending to be moderates?" he said.

"It's not at all clear, so I'm concerned."

But Calgary political scientist Duane Bratt says Kenney has been quiet about these issues on purpose because of the hundreds of conservative varieties the party leader is trying to unite under one umbrella.

Built on the backs of social conservatives

Bratt says the UCP base has been built on the backs of social conservatives. He points to the Wilberforce Project, a pro-life movement, and its claim to be well on the way to having the "most pro-life legislature in decades, and maybe ever." 

"He's going to have a problem once he's elected because they're going to want some sort of action," Bratt said.

While abortion is federal jurisdiction, Bratt says there are many things Kenney could do to satisfy that base, like repeal the NDP buffer law — a 50-metre, no-protest zone around abortion clinics.

"There's stuff he could do on the edges if elected, if he so desired," said Bratt. "But we won't know that until the election." 

'Shut up' strategy

And that's because Bratt says Kenney's strategy at the moment is to "shut up" about any hot-button topics that could divide his base. 

And, in a press conference, Kenney said as much.

"I've been clear for well over 2½ years, we have no interest in getting into divisive hot-button issues like the NDP loves to do," Kenney said. "Our focus is on economic growth and standing up for Alberta." 

Kenney says the UCP approach borrows from Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives, a party which, Bratt noted, included some members with strong, socially conservative values but whose policies didn't often veer into that territory.

Some nice ladies at church told me if I wanted to have any say in Alberta politics at all, I needed to join the Conservative party.- Carole Hillson

"[Kenney] has been much more outspoken, not recently, but there's lots of material on the record, including as an MP on these issues," said Bratt. "There are people who are very suspicious of what he would do in government." 

And that suspicion is top of mind for Carole at McBride's Bakery in Medicine Hat.

When she moved to Alberta, there was one bit of advice she took to heart. 

"Some nice ladies at church told me if I wanted to have any say in Alberta politics at all, I needed to join the Conservative party," she said. 

'What's the alternative?'

So she bought a membership, she got involved, she watched the issues with the promise of being able to change Alberta from within — her own grassroots promise. 

But with the United Conservative Party, what she hasn't signed up for, like her husband, is a socially conservative mandate. 

"But what's the alternative?" she asks, laughing. "I mean, we live in Medicine Hat." 

She said if you're thinking strategically, then like her friends at church told her, you vote conservative and try to shape the province from within.

"I'm not sure this is the same conservative party," she said.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney says his party has 'no interest in getting into divisive hot-button issues like the NDP loves to do.' (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Bratt has a favourite line about elections he wants people to chew on: It's a gamble and you can only place one bet.

"What game are you going to play with that one chip, how are you going to vote?" Bratt said. "Social issues may be important — but they aren't as important right now as the economy. 'Lake of fire' made a difference in 2012, but the economy was humming in 2012."

"Lake of fire" refers to a controversial comment about the LGBT community made by a Wildrose candidate that some believe cost the party the provincial election seven years ago.


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