Edmonton·Opinion

Kenney's plan to screen new party members for hateful, extreme views is unprecedented

The United Conservative Party calls them growing pains. Well, they’re certainly a pain. And they seem to be growing.

‘It’s an extraordinary measure but for the UCP these are extraordinary times'

Jason Kenney issued a statement this week saying he was "shocked and disturbed" by reports about a UCP member's "hateful and extreme online activity." (The Canadian Press)

The United Conservative Party calls them growing pains.

Well, they're certainly a pain.

And they seem to be growing.

The latest jab came this week when UCP Leader Jason Kenney issued a statement saying he was "shocked and disturbed by reports of hateful and extreme online activity by a UCP member named Adam Strashok."

What shocked and disturbed Kenney were news reports that Strashok had posted anti-Semitic comments on social media and is a promoter of an online store that sells white supremacist memorabilia.

Strashok wasn't just a rank-and file-member of the UCP but ran the call centre for Kenney's leadership campaign in 2017.

When the story broke about Strashok's links to racism, Kenney moved quickly to kick Strashok out of the party.

"Neither I nor anyone on my staff was aware of the extreme views of the individual in question," said Kenney's statement. "I have since instructed Party officials to cancel Mr. Strashok's membership."

Dé​jà​ vu

At this point, you might be having a feeling of dé​jà​ vu.

The UCP has been busy booting out or elbowing aside members who have made controversial, hateful or ridiculous postings on social media or who have defended people for making controversial, hateful or ridiculous postings on social media.

The party's executive director, Janice Harrington, has become something of a master at writing letters to would-be UCP candidates telling them in no uncertain terms they are not welcome to run for the party.

There was, for example, the candidacy hopeful who defended the anti-immigration stance of the Soldiers of Odin and the would-be candidate who had social media postings ranting at Muslims. Others have made homophobic comments.

The party seemed to be playing whack-a-mole with its own members. It wasn't clear who was winning. And then came the news story about Strashok.

It couldn't have come at a worse time for the UCP, just days after the massacre of Jewish worshippers at a Pittsburgh synagogue.

Kenney wanted to move quickly and definitively.

Boy, did he ever. Not only did he kick out Strashok, Kenney suggested he wants a system in place to make sure another Strashok isn't waiting in the wings to damage the party's reputation.

"I recently also asked the Board of the UCP to develop a process for screening applicants for membership to block those who have expressed hateful or extreme views."

New members to be screened

It is a remarkable statement. And a remarkable goal.

Kenney wants the party to screen all new members of the UCP.

It would seem to be a difficult, if not impossible, task if the party continues to sign up thousands of people. (It currently has 130,000 members.)

Kenney hasn't explained how the new vetting system would work.

UCP house leader Jason Nixon didn't seem to know.

"Mr. Kenney made that instruction to the party, obviously party officials are going to have to figure out the best way to comply with the leader's instructions," Nixon told reporters. "We made a commitment to try. I think it's unprecedented."

Nixon suggested the UCP might have more people with extreme views than other parties simply because the UCP has many more members than any other party.

Hmm. I'm not sure that's much of a defence.

Anyway, having a party screen its members for "hateful and extreme views" certainly is unprecedented, to say the least.

It's an extraordinary measure but for the UCP these are extraordinary times.

The party is doing well in public opinion polls but is in danger of self-immolation thanks to members with extreme views.

UCP 'further to the right'

Even former Wildrose leader Brian Jean weighed in this week via a tweet, urging Kenney to "stop playing footsy with freaks!"

Watching this unfold with an I-told-you-so on his lips is MLA Richard Starke, who refused to join the UCP last year after the unification vote between the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose.

Starke thought the new United Conservatives under Kenney would be too conservative for most Albertans.

"The decision I made has been confirmed," he said in an interview Thursday. "The new party is further to the right than either the Progressive Conservatives or the Wildrose party."

Starke says he believes that as part of a strategy to win the leadership races for the PCs and then the UCP, Kenney attracted people with extreme viewpoints.

Now, Kenney is living with the consequences.

As are Albertans, said Starke.

"They're not enamoured with the current government and they don't want to see the current government get re-elected but they have real reservations about the UCP. So, they're sort of saying, 'Well what else is there?' "

It's a question Starke is asking himself.

Starke still calls himself a Progressive Conservative but the PC party is effectively dead. Starke is in reality an Independent. He's looking for a political home before the next election.

No doubt, just like a whole bunch of Albertans.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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