Calgary

Crisis a day keeps focus away: Did Albertans give UCP a mandate for all this?

Did the UCP campaign on replacing the RCMP with an Alberta police force, pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan, significant cuts to education and health care, a private member's bill that could affect access to abortion and firing the election commissioner after more than $200,000 in fines were issued related to their own leadership race?

Even staunch defenders are treading lightly

One political watcher says it appears the Jason Kenney government is bombarding Albertans with one controversial bill after another to make it difficult to keep track. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press )

Did the UCP campaign in Alberta's spring election on replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force, pulling out of the Canada Pension Plan, significant cuts to education and health care, a private member's bill that could affect access to abortion and firing the election commissioner after more than $200,000 in fines were issued related to their own leadership race?

Were these actions what Albertans voted for when they handed Jason Kenney and the United Conservative Party a majority government, ousting Rachel Notley's incumbent NDP?

That depends on who you ask, as CBC Calgary's Alberta@Noon heard on Tuesday..

However, even staunch defenders were treading lightly.

Monte Solberg is a conservative going back to the Reform Party days. (Submitted by New West Public Affairs)

"It's very controversial and it's going to get a lot of tongues wagging," Monte Solberg, a former MP for the Reform Party, Canadian Alliance and then Conservative parties, told Alberta@Noon.

"This is in alignment with where the government said it would go, but the optics are absolutely … they are pretty bad."

Solberg represented Medicine Hat, Alta., as an MP from 1993 until he retired from the role in 2008. He was a federal cabinet minister and has long been a supporter of now-premier Jason Kenney. As a political strategist and principal with New West Public Affairs in Calgary, Solberg urged Albertans to vote for UCP.

Zain Velji is a campaign strategist and political analyst. (Submitted bv Zain Velji)

Zain Velji, a campaign strategist and political analyst, went a bit further.

"I think it's a brazen move," said Velji, a partner at Northweather.

"It's about a crisis a day. This doesn't allow citizens or the media to get a full dissection on what's going on because we have to cover the next thing. It's called changing the channel. You do something that people don't like, you don't want them to talk about it, you throw something else at them."

The United Conservative Party won 63 of the Alberta's 87 ridings in the April election, with 55 per cent of the popular vote.

Kenney campaigned on jobs, the economy and pipelines, and regularly criticized NDP Leader Rachel Notley for not mentioning a carbon tax in her platform before winning the 2015 election but then introducing one.

Kenney also said he would not "bring forward legislative measures on abortion" if elected.

Yet, earlier this month, a UCP MLA, Dan Williams, introduced private member's bill 207, which would not only let Alberta doctors refuse to advise or assist on things they object to due to for personal or religious beliefs like abortions, contraception or medically assisted death — something they already have the right to do under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms — but also drops the current obligation that they steer patients elsewhere for help.

All the UCP MLAs in attendance for the first reading of the Conscience Rights (Health Care Providers) Protection Act voted to pass it while all NDP MLAs voted against it.

Critics say it would reduce abortion access, especially in rural communities with few doctors.

On Monday, the UCP announced omnibus Bill 22 — which would allow the firing of the election commissioner, who is investigating fraud in the party's 2017 leadership race that elected Kenney. Lorne Gibson has dished out fines totalling more than $200,000 so far.

Finance Minister Travis Toews says it's not about undermining current investigations, it's about the $1 million in savings over five years. Gibson would see his office merged with that of the province's chief electoral officer.

But the move drew criticism from the opposition and questions about interference in the work of an independent officer of the legislative assembly. 

"It reeks of corruption. This is farther than I have ever seen any other political leader in Canada go," Notley said Monday.

A political scientist says it doesn't look good.

"The optics of firing the guy or removing his position, who is investigating the party, looks really bad. And it is bad," said Duane Bratt, a professor at Mount Royal University.

Toews wasn't available Tuesday to defend the bill on Alberta@Noon.

"It does save money," Solberg said. "It puts Alberta on the same footing as every other province in the country."

But, he concedes, it's a tough sell.

"This is a no-win situation for the UCP, so they felt now is the best time to make this move."

Velji says, however, this goes beyond what the party promised.

"The electorate has given Jason Kenney the mandate to cut expenditures, but not at any cost," he said.

"No way has this government been given the mandate to do stuff like this."

And caller Tyler Lambert of Edmonton told Alberta@Noon he agrees.

"It is incredibly corrupt, what they are doing," Lambert said.

"They advocated jobs and pipelines and they are cutting all of these social services. There is no job creation there. He is not standing up for Albertans, not in my eyes."

A Calgary caller was on the same page.

"It doesn't look bad. It is bad," Doug Wilson said, defending the work of the elections commissioner.

"I can't believe for a moment that [Lorne Gibson] would do so without any form of substantiation. To remove him could change the entire investigation and make it a whitewash. It speaks to a certain level of ethical bankruptcy, in my mind."

Velji says for some voters, it's a matter of sticking with your team.

"If you like Jason Kenney, you will rationalize, justify and find every excuse to continue liking Jason Kenney. If you don't, you won't," Velji said.

"As long as you get me jobs, economy and pipelines, then I am fine. Right now, let's be totally candid, very little movement on the economy, jobs and pipelines. At some point, people are going to ask for the receipts."

Solberg says many conservatives will see it differently.

"People are still overwhelmingly with the government. It is you versus the other parties. When people look around, they don't want to go back to the NDP. That's not an option for them."

Another Edmonton caller wasn't so sure, saying trust is paramount.

"I have never been mad enough to phone in before, but I am now," Brian Kaliel said.

"I am not a partisan party member by any stretch. I am the kind of guy Jason Kenney should be paying attention to. Once you have lost a voter's trust, you are not going to get it back. I think most Albertans are concerned about good governance, somebody who will be honest and manage our affairs in a careful, prudent way. The urban voters in Edmonton already don't trust him, and I would be concerned about voters in Calgary, if I were him."

Matt Bergin of Edmonton tweeted what's on the minds of some.

"Firing the elections commissioner in the midst of an investigation is troubling and very bad optics," Bergin wrote.

"Moving teachers pension to government control is OK only if they get the same or better returns."

Tamara Lee of Calgary said this government has not been as advertised.

"I expected an ideological budget, not a cruel and vindictive one," Lee tweeted.

"I expected downplaying the leadership campaign investigation, not firing the investigator and dissolving his office mid-investigation. I expected an effort to increase jobs, not corporate tax gifts and layoffs."

Caller Don Smith who has a farming background near Edmonton had some predictions.

"Trump won't get impeached, he will probably get re-elected. Kenney will get re-elected. We will forget all about this and life will go on," Smith said.

"Under the NDP, I could not have survived another four years. We are in trouble now. I am hoping Kenney is going to bring the jobs back and I am willing to overlook the rest of it."

Solberg says, meanwhile, the speed and content of some of these bills may not go over well with even some of Kenney's supporters.

"It absolutely will impact their support, and the government is going to have to answer a lot of tough questions," Solberg said.

Velji says none of this came out of left field.

"Jason Kenney knows what he is doing: a crisis a day that gets everyone's attention. None of this is a mistake. This is all deliberate."

With files from Alberta@Noon

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