Will face of UCP caucus change, given diverse slate of nomination hopefuls?

A lack of gender and racial representation will not be an Achilles heel for the United Conservative Party, say candidates who hope to diversify Jason Kenney’s opposition caucus.

Jason Kenney's caucus is currently short on women, visible minorities

United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney has been recruiting a more diverse slate of party nominees. (Todd Korol/The Canadian Press)

A lack of gender and racial representation will not be an Achilles heel for the United Conservative Party, say candidates who hope to diversify Jason Kenney's opposition caucus.

"The party needs more diversity," said Rafat Alam, a Grant MacEwan economics professor from Bangladesh who is seeking the UCP nomination in Edmonton-Rutherford. "We heard the message and that's one of the reasons I'm stepping up." 

UCP political leadership knows that diversity has become a linchpin on the campaign trail, said Alam, a first-time candidate who has been involved with conservative politics in Alberta since 2012.

If the party wants to win a majority, it must better represent an increasingly diverse Alberta.

'We need more representation'

"In my riding, one-third of the voters are visible minorities," said Alam, who believes immigrant voters are becoming increasingly engaged in conservative provincial politics.

"In the urban areas, the population mix has changed. And to be a true democracy, I think we need more representation from visible minorities, as well as women."

At the outset of his campaign in 2017, Kenney vowed to recruit a "diverse" group of candidates, including LGBTQ community members and women.

But the 27-member UCP caucus he inherited after the Conservatives united with the Wildrose, had only two female MLAs — Leela Aheer and Angela Pitt.

Meantime, Premier Rachel Notley's NDP cabinet has maintained gender parity.

An Alberta Elections database shows nearly 80 per cent of UCP MLAs are white men. But with a more diverse group of endorsed candidates, the numbers could shift after the next election.

Kenney's efforts to put more diverse candidates on the ballot appears to be paying off.

More than 40 per cent of the candidates announced by the party so far are women or visible minorities.

Nigerian-born chartered accountant Olatunde Obasan is a UCP nomination candidate running in Edmonton-South.

The economy is the number one political issue for immigrant voters, Obasan said, and many people in his community are frustrated with the NDP government's carbon tax and unbalanced budget.

"I chose the UCP because it supports common sense," Obasan said. "People around me, the people from the Nigerian community, they also support things with common sense, and that's why the majority of us are in the conservative party."

There is a shift toward diversity in the UCP caucus, he said.

"I give credit to Jason Kenney. He has been advocating for a diverse, inclusive government ... That is the only way we can represent everybody."

Janice Sarich, a former Progressive Conservative MLA who's seeking the UCP nomination in Edmonton-Decore, said it's important for the UCP to show it's a welcoming party and Kenney's efforts to recruit diverse candidates will pay off.

"We have to look at the tone at the top for the party, and that's very important," she said.

"[Kenney] he has made a firm commitment to recruit women to serve … that's where it begins."

'There are still barriers' 

Political scientist Melanee Thomas said diverse candidates could help bring the party more votes, but there is no guarantee they will win their nominations.

Thomas said women and visible minorities can face discrimination in political campaigns, especially when running for right-wing parties.

"I'm cautious because I don't know the outcomes of these nomination contests," said Thomas, an associate professor of political science at the University of Calgary. "There are still barriers there.

"If the UCP manages to pull out a parity slate, I will openly own to being totally impressed. But I don't think that will be the case."

With files from Madeleine Cummings