Edmonton

Opinion | The goofs, the bad and the ugly: Fledgling UCP government trying to find its feet

Politically speaking, Alberta’s United Conservative government is still learning to walk.

Early session stumbles surprising given the legacy party PCs were in power for 44 years

Doug Schweitzer speaks to reporters at the legislature Monday. (Nathan Gross/CBC)

Politically speaking, Alberta's United Conservative government is still learning to walk.

It's a toddler, so it's going to trip itself up now and again. That's understandable.

We saw this kind of thing happen with the New Democrats when they formed government for the first time in 2015.

They got themselves caught in fundraising mini-scandals, struggled with answers in question period and had ministers looking like deer caught in the headlights when facing journalists.

I am admittedly a little surprised the UCP is going through the same growing pains given that one of its legacy parties, the Progressive Conservatives, had been government for 44 years. And its leader, Jason Kenney, has years of experience at the federal level.

I'm also surprised some of the missteps are not simply pratfalls but seem to be deliberate attempts to sidestep the transparency and accountability the UCP purports to champion.

Most, though, are simple goofs that make you cringe but also smile. Others are bad and some are downright ugly.

First the goofs.

Take last week when NDP MLA Richard Feehan asked Indigenous Relations Minister Rick Wilson if he acknowledges the United Nations' declaration on the rights of Indigenous people. It was an obvious question coming from a former Indigenous Relations minister and one Wilson should have seen coming a mile away.

Rick Wilson, Minister of Indigenous relations wasn't able to provide a clear answer when asked if he acknowledges the United Nations' declaration on the rights of indigenous people. (Government of Alberta)


But for 15 seconds Wilson couldn't articulate an answer as he frantically flipped through pages of talking points before offering a platitude  — "Our government is committed to empowering Indigenous Albertans to take charge of their own destiny" — that ended with an embarrassing, "Thank you for the question. I'll get back to you."

On Monday afternoon, UCP backbencher Jackie Lovely stood in question period and instead of asking a question began reading a member's statement. The Speaker stopped her to interject, "are you asking a question or making a member's statement?"

At that point Lovely is heard off-mic to quietly complain, "I didn't get the question," an apparent reference to the fact that UCP backbenchers, just like backbenchers through the ages, only ask questions that are fed to them by senior government staff.

Among the examples of "bad" government behaviour is Health Minister Tyler Shandro's bungled handling over what his ministry is doing on the issue of conversion therapy (the debunked, non-scientific, and harmful practice of trying to alter a person's sexual orientation from homosexual to heterosexual).

Shandro has confused just about everyone over the fate of a group tasked by the previous NDP government to find ways to ban the practice. Shandro met with members of the group on Wednesday who said afterwards they still don't know what's going on. Then Shandro refused to answer reporters' questions, except to do little but repeat a talking point that, "I look forward to getting back to them in due course." He repeated "in due course" nine times over three minutes while stonewalling journalists.

Shandro is a well-respected lawyer who has, among other things, sat on the National Parole Board and the Calgary Police Commission.

But on Wednesday he looked like he'd rather be having a root canal than talking to reporters. 

Either somebody has replaced Shandro with a robot or, perhaps more likely, he's receiving really bad marching orders from the premier's office.

RCMP investigation

Then we have the "ugly" — namely, how the government obstinately refused to call in an independent prosecutor to oversee an RCMP investigation into complaints of voter fraud in the 2017 UCP leadership race.

Kenney, of course, won that race. Doug Schweitzer, who is now Minister of Justice and Solicitor General, and therefore responsible for the RCMP in Alberta, was a candidate in the race.

Not only is their party's leadership race under police investigation, Alberta's Election Commissioner has so far issued $71,000 worth of fines against people connected with another candidate in the race, Jeff Callaway. Callaway has been dubbed the "kamikaze candidate" because his campaign appeared to be collaborating with the Kenney campaign.

We don't know details of exactly what the RCMP is looking into.

But think about it: the premier and justice minister were candidates in a political leadership race that is now under police investigation. And they didn't seem to think this looked bad.

The optics are, to put it mildly, horrible.

For weeks the Opposition has argued that Schweitzer must appoint an independent prosecutor to ensure the investigation is free from even a whiff of political interference.

And for weeks Kenney and Schweitzer refused, saying they had trust in the independence of the RCMP. They refused even after the RCMP interviewed Schweitzer last weekend.

"I personally am not under investigation," said Schweitzer on Monday, as if that made everything OK.

Finally, on Thursday, Alberta's Crown Prosecution Service said it is seeking an out-of-province prosecutor to step in and provide police with advice as they continue the investigation.

We can laugh at a new government's moments of goofy behaviour and even understand the occasional bad.

But there is nothing to laugh at when the government's actions look ugly.

This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read the editor's blog and our FAQ.

About the Author

You can find columnist Graham Thomson's thoughts and analysis on provincial politics every Friday at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News and during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM).

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