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OPINION | A remarkable misreading of the desires of Alberta voters

“But Jason Kenney and his party have designed a platform for the Alberta they imagine, not the Alberta that exists.” Duncan Kinney, executive director of Progress Alberta, an independent non-profit that does political organizing on the left of the political spectrum, on values, demographics and the election campaign.

It’s about values

UCP Leader Jason Kenney and NDP Leader Rachel Notley. Albertans go to the polls on April 16. (CBC)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This is one opinion. Under the heading Opinion, we are carrying a range of different points of view on the issues facing Albertans during the current election. You can find them on our Alberta Votes 2019 page.

I'm not a regular listener to conservative talk radio show host Charles Adler. But earlier this week, tens of thousands of Albertans gathered around their radios like it was the 1930s, to listen to what was some of the most compelling talk radio you'll ever hear.

It was a remarkable extended interview between Adler and his friend Jason Kenney. Adler played back the now-famous clip of UCP MLA Mark Smith comparing women who choose to have abortions to murderers and saying that homosexual love isn't real love.

Kenney was offered chance after chance by Adler, who clearly wanted Kenney to show some empathy, some contrition, and for Smith to face any kind of consequences. But no, in a moment that will define his political ambitions and potentially the outcome of this election Kenney chose to stand by Smith.

He chose to dissemble, to obfuscate, to spin.

Given the 2012 "lake of fire" election and the backlash around GSAs in 2014/2015, that helped sink the Prentice PCs it's a remarkable misreading of the desires of Alberta's voters – voters who spoke very clearly in 2012 and 2015 that the rights of their fellow Albertans are very dear to their hearts when they head to the voting booth.

But this is part of a wider trend, where Kenney just doesn't seem to understand Alberta voters in 2019.

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Before I go on, I'm raising a small human in Edmonton but I grew up and went to college in Calgary and like many Albertans my family moved here to work in oil and gas.

I started Progress Alberta as an independent non-profit organization, hoping to build a genuine, people-powered progressive movement in Alberta. For three years we have been doing political organizing, training and research on the left. We raise money from our supporters, labour unions and other non-profits and charities. I myself am not currently doing any paid or unpaid work for campaigns in this election. And Progress Alberta is not doing any paid work for any campaign, and we are not currently getting any funding from any political party in this election campaign.

But to be clear, my views lead me to be necessarily partisan in this election.

Tone-deaf policy

It's not just the inability to turf Smith or rolling back protections on GSAs, the UCP keeps rolling out tone-deaf policy proposal after tone-deaf policy proposal – taking away time-and-a-half pay on banked overtime hours, re-prosecuting safe consumption sites, privatizing big chunks of our health-care system, and massive corporate tax cuts for the ultra-rich.

Jason Kenney and the UCP have pointed their campaign hard right. And they seem very confident that the Albertans who said no to the tepid conservative politics of the Prentice PCs in 2015, for some reason want the super-hard stuff in 2019.

There's no question that the oil industry crash, recession and unemployment has left the province seething in deep anger and resentment, and that's anger that the UCP have effectively tapped since their inception. My family was affected by that too — my father, who worked 36 straight years in oil and gas, was laid off. But is Kenney confusing that anger with a taste for his brand of hard-right politics?

Consider the reality of modern day Alberta.

A diverse bunch

We are young.

Alberta has more millennials than baby boomers now. The average age across Canada is 40.8 years. The average age in Alberta is 36.9. That's the lowest of any province and guess what, I'm one of those average millennials – I just turned 36.  

Albertans are also educated.

University enrolment is way up from when Kenney first got elected to federal politics in 1997. Alberta has 76,000 more people enrolled in post-secondary in 2016-2017 than we had in 1996-1997 — a 66 per cent increase. Between 2001 and 2016 the number of Albertans with a college or university degree jumped from 40 per cent to 53 per cent.

We are a diverse bunch. By Statscan numbers, 38 per cent of Calgarians are either a visible minority or Indigenous. In the next 20 years or so the majority of Calgarians won't be white. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets for the biggest Pride parade in Calgary's history this past September. And these parades aren't just in the big cities — Lethbridge, Medicine Hat and even Taber saw vibrant and exciting Pride celebrations this past year.

Albertans are, by and large, urban. Roughly two-thirds of Albertans live either in or around Calgary or Edmonton. And the electoral riding redistribution that recently happened means that Alberta's political map largely reflects Alberta's urban reality.

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We also "come from away."

Since 2009, more than 430,000 interprovincial or international migrants have come to Alberta. If they all lived in one city it would be the third largest city in Alberta. And these folks don't necessarily have a relationship with "traditional" conservative Alberta politics or identities.

Our attitudes on hot-button social issues have changed.

Lethbridge College professor Faron Ellis has been polling Albertan attitudes on the same questions since 2009. Support for same-sex marriage has increased by 16 points in nine years, support for abortion choice has increased by seven points, support for doctor-assisted death has increased by nearly 20 points.

These data points don't necessarily mean that the NDP is going to win the election – demography is not destiny – but this next election will not be a UCP coronation.

It's not just on social issues where the values of Albertans have passed Kenney by. One of the UCP's key economic policy positions is a massive corporate tax cut. Here, too, Kenney seems to be ignoring a clear message from 2015.

The Alberta NDP won in 2015 for a variety of reasons — PC corruption and entitlement, shifting demographics, a strong, disciplined NDP campaign with a charismatic leader — but one contributing factor was the popularity of the idea of raising taxes on corporations and the rich to ensure stability for universal public services like health care and education.

When Progress Alberta first got started, I published a set of polling that showed a lot of the same things CBC's The Road Ahead series has discovered about Alberta's complicated political reality — and the one finding that sticks with me the most is Albertans' perception about the politics of their neighbours.

Your neighbours, coworkers and family aren't as conservative as you think.

A drastic overestimation

When our pollster asked respondents to rate themselves on a political scale, a plurality of people identified as progressive. But when asked to put "other Albertans" on the same political scale, the results skewed heavily conservative.

In other words, Albertans drastically overestimate how conservative their neighbours are. And if the UCP's embrace of these deeply unpopular positions is any indication, Jason Kenney is overestimating this conservative sentiment too.

I will give credit to Jason Kenney for one thing over Rachel Notley.

When it comes to ideologies, Jason Kenney is a true believer. Kenney is willing to push unpopular issues that he truly believes in, in order to push the public where he wants them to go, whereas Notley is much more cooly pragmatic.

As a lefty, it can sometimes be frustrating to have Rachel Notley as your premier.

But Jason Kenney and his party have designed a platform for the Alberta they imagine, not the Alberta that exists.

Voters in Alberta need to take a hard look at what the UCP are actually proposing, or they're liable to get an "accidental government" for real — a premier who, at the end of the day, fundamentally doesn't share their beliefs.

About the Author

Duncan Kinney is the executive director of Progress Alberta, an independent non-profit that does political organizing, training and research on the left of the political spectrum.