UCP founding convention ends with no clear answer on party platform

It was all going so well. When convention co-chairs — Edmonton Riverbend MP Matt Jeneroux and Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer — took centre stage Friday night to open the inaugural United Conservative Party policy convention in Red Deer, there was the aura of something glittery and special.

A smooth gathering in Red Deer was derailed slightly when lake of fire talk resurfaced

Delegates voted to repeal the carbon tax, and bring back the flat tax, but social issues exposed divisions (CBC)

It was all going so well.

When convention co-chairs — Edmonton Riverbend MP Matt Jeneroux and Chestermere-Rocky View MLA Leela Aheer — took centre stage Friday night to open the inaugural United Conservative Party policy convention in Red Deer, there was the aura of something glittery and special getting underway.

Jeneroux told delegates that, unlike the past when Alberta had two provincial conservative parties to choose from, the merged UCP made things simpler.

"Federal Conservatives no longer need to pick a side," Jeneroux told the crowd, "and I did pick a side at one point."

Jeneroux and Aheer represented the coming together of three conservative parties in Canada. That includes the federal Conservative Party and the two provincial conservative parties, the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives, all working together for a common purpose to win provincial and federal elections in 2019. 

So far, so good. It was all smooth and according to plan.

But by Sunday, the new UCP found itself embroiled in controversy.

It was an old problem carried over from one of its two founding legacy parties which exposed a wound, and potential vulnerability.

The issue was a motion giving parents the right to be informed if their child joins a gay-straight alliance (GSA).

Resolution 30 had enough support from the grassroots membership to make it to the convention floor, ahead of hundreds of others that didn't make the cut.

It called for the Alberta government to reinstate parental opt-in consent for any subjects of a religious or sexual nature, including enrolment in extracurricular activities.

When it came up, there seemed little doubt behind the intention. Proponents argued that it was about respecting the constitutional rights of parents.

Spruce Grove Pastor Brian Coldwell argued, "It's about fundamental God-given freedoms."

'Lake of fire' warning

But in a surprising move, three UCP MLAs tried to urge delegates to drop the motion. 

One of them, Calgary-Hays MLA Ric McIver, warned delegates to reject the resolution altogether.

"This is about outing gay kids," McIver said to heckling from the crowd. "Don't be called the lake of fire party, I'm begging you."

Lake of fire is a reference to an incident in the 2012 provincial election, when it was revealed a blog written by a Wildrose party candidate warned homosexuals they faced etermity in the "lake of fire," or hell, if they didn't change their ways. Those homophobic comments, coupled with comments deemed racist by another Wildrose candidate, were blamed for dashing the hopes of then-Wildrose leader Danielle Smith of forming the next government.

Convention floor drama

On the convention floor Sunday, Jason Nixon, the MLA for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, was quickly moved to the front of the line when the call was made for the last few speakers.

But Nixon's pleas of "Stop taking the NDP's bait," and "We should not go down this road" didn't appear to affect the outcome of the vote. Aheer also tried unsuccessfully to sway the delegates to reject the motion. It passed with 57 per cent support. 

After McIver spoke, he was ushered to the back of the room by party officials. Reporters wanting to talk to him were told he wasn't available, and it would be up to UCP Leader Jason Kenney to answer any questions.

Only the night before, Kenney was on stage talking about creating a big-tent party, urging delegates to be flexible and warning to not repeat mistakes of the past.

In the meantime, the NDP seized on the opportunity created by division at the convention.

Eggen sees an opportunity

Education Minister David Eggen, who had planned all along to attend the convention as an observer Sunday, dashed out a news release shortly after the motion was passed hoping to draw attention to the UCP's intransigence on social issues, similar to the past conservative parties.

"Nothing's changed as far as I can see" said Eggen, who suggested even the hint of outing gay students would cause "actual damage and insecurity."

Saying they were concerned about the response Eggen would receive from delegates, UCP convention organizers had advised Eggen speak to reporters outside the convention venue.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney says he will take some time before deciding on party policy and the eventual election platform (CBC)

When Kenney spoke with reporters, he brushed aside suggestions by critics that perhaps the UCP isn't such a big-tent party after all. In fact, he said, Resolution 30 was poorly worded, suggesting had he been on the floor he would have voted against it.

In fact, Kenney said the party's position hadn't officially changed. Besides, he said, it is up to him to sign off on anything that becomes party policy, or part of its platform.

"And really, I hold the pen on the platform," Kenney told reporters. "And I reaffirmed in my remarks [Saturday] night, the role of the leader to make decisions."

Kenney said a UCP government "will not be changing law or policy to require notification of parents when kids join GSAs. we will not do that."

'Rooting for you,' Scheer says

Prominent federal Conservatives played a key role at the weekend convention.

"We are rooting for you like you have no idea," said federal Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer during his Friday night speech.

Scheer called Kenney "someone who has steered a movement of unity that made friends out of former enemies."

They may not be enemies anymore, but it's clear, rifts still exist.

Regardless of what policies were passed or rejected at the convention, the real work will take place between now and next February. That's when the UCP will hold its next convention, this time in Edmonton.

Kenney is now presented with perhaps his biggest challenge as leader of the newest Alberta conservative political party. In June, he will appoint a committee to draft an election platform that tries to appease the grassroots while appealing to voters.

And at that point, like the decision MP Jeneroux admitted facing when he kicked off the UCP conference, Kenney will have to choose a side.


Kim Trynacity is a former provincial affairs reporter with CBC Edmonton.