Premier's office encouraged staff to downvote certain policy ideas ahead of UCP annual meeting, memo shows

The premier’s office sent political staff written directions encouraging them to downvote certain policy ideas they didn’t want on the final list for the United Conservative Party’s annual general meeting, according to a memo provided to staff. 

UCP members will be voting on a number of policy resolutions at general meeting

Delegates vote on policies during sessions at the Alberta United Conservative Party annual general meeting in Calgary on Nov. 30, 2019. (Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press)

The premier's office sent political staff written directions encouraging them to downvote certain policy ideas they didn't want on the final list for the United Conservative Party's annual general meeting, according to a memo provided to staff. 

CBC News obtained a copy of it, which recommended specific resolutions to rank as low priority when party members were voting in August to pare down the list of which policy resolutions should make it to the debate floor at the convention. 

Two sources confirmed the memo originated from staff in the premier's office. CBC News has agreed not to name them as they were unauthorized to speak about the matter. 

"You are of course free to rank resolutions as you see fit. However, there are certain resolutions that are recommended for low ranking, often because they are largely redundant to other preferable resolutions or conflict with current ongoing government policy or communication initiatives," the memo reads.

Policies listed for lower ranking included introducing a provincial sales tax, relocalizing 911 dispatch, a moratorium on new coal exploration and development on the eastern slopes of the Rockies and creating a revenue-neutral Alberta carbon tax to replace the federal backstop.

Preliminary rounds of voting were conducted in August, as there were 86 proposed policy resolutions. The top 30 have been added to the debate agenda for this weekend's meeting. 

Of 19 resolutions recommended for low ranking, 17 didn't make the final list. The two that did were about respecting doctors' rights to refuse procedures that go against their personal or religious beliefs and supporting an individual's right not to join a union. 

"People who happen to work at the Legislature are often involved in party politics, and that is true of every party and government. This includes voting on resolutions at party conventions," the premier's office said in a statement.

"All members of the United Conservative Party are free to vote through secret ballot processes in the way that best reflects their priorities."

Writing down what's normally spoken

While the concept of governing parties whipping convention votes among staff isn't new, one analyst says it's strange to see it formalized and distributed. 

"This is a dynamic that you see, but I'm not sure every party would be foolish enough to write it down," said University of Calgary political scientist Lisa Young. 

"This is a party where the insiders are in disarray." 

The premier said Thursday he wasn't aware of the memo, adding it's common for political staff to participate in the parties they belong to. 

"It's hardly surprising that political staff on their personal time are involved in political matters," Jason Kenney said. 

"A lot of what informed our platform came off the floor of United Conservative Party annual general meeting debates."

The memo was provided to CBC News just days after a government MLA made allegations of third parties being offered to have their convention fees paid, along with other inducements, in return for votes on premier-friendly issues at the meeting in Calgary.

Peter Guthrie, the MLA for Airdrie-Cochrane, read a statement in a caucus meeting this week outlining his concerns with those unproven allegations, including that premier's office staff were involved and using taxpayer dollars. 

"That's not the 'grassroots guarantee' that I ran on," he said.

"Public opinion continues to wane and we may be at a point where this party cannot be salvaged."

Two legislature members, one NDP and one former-UCP-now-independent MLA, have asked Alberta's chief electoral officer to investigate the allegations.

This week also saw the milestone of 22 UCP constituency boards pass a motion to trigger a leadership review earlier than the one currently planned for April.

The 22 represent one-quarter of UCP constituencies, which is the minimum required under the bylaws to prompt a fast-tracked review.

A motion will come to the floor during this AGM that would boost the threshold to 29.

The rationale for the motion is that one-third of constituencies should be required to trigger such a consequential vote.

The UCP convention runs from Friday evening until midday Sunday.

With files from the Canadian Press