Random Image Display on Page Reload

Alberta UCP activists want ‘control’ of party board — but to do what with it, exactly?

A surge of conservative activists at this week's party AGM want Danielle Smith's party to hear its voice on medical rights and transgender issues. But a UCP president and executive can't really influence provincial policy, political veterans say.

President, executive can't really influence provincial policy, veterans say

A man wearing a grey long-sleeved shirt speaks into a microphone in front of a podium.

David Parker's bespectacled eyes widened as the leader of Take Back Alberta told fellow political activists what will go down at the United Conservative Party's annual convention this weekend.

It's different from what most traditional politicos will say is happening at Calgary's BMO Centre — a political schmoozefest where members get to clap thundersticks for leader Danielle Smith, get tipsy at hospitality suites and choose the party apparatchiks who manage fundraising dollars and help constituency associations file documents on time.

Parker sees it in more revolutionary terms.

He sees this as a chance to elect an "absolute majority" of the UCP board, loyal to his movement and its beliefs.

'Control your politicians'

Parker has taken credit for helping drive Albertans to channel their anger with COVID rules into toppling former premier Jason Kenney, replacing him with Danielle Smith, and electing like-minded conservatives to form half the UCP board at the annual general meeting last fall. He's among the organizers who encouraged 3,725 Albertans to attend this weekend's event, largely to finish with the other half of board posts.

But the charismatic Parker has lately tried to shake accusations that he's a wannabe puppetmaster, rather than a great empowerer of the grassroots. "I don't want to control the premier; I'm not interested in that," he told a crowd in the small town of Taber, Alta., last month. "I want you to control your politicians. I want the people to be the ones who are in charge."

The attendees at the Take Back Alberta events Parker has held around the province are galvanized by continued fights against the threat of mask mandates or any threats to their personal liberties, and more lately by the fight for "parental rights" when it comes to transgender kids. Those voting for UCP president at the AGM will also get to vote on several policy resolutions about things like student pronouns and medical freedoms.

On the convention's eve, Parker struck an even more determined tone on social media.

"After this AGM, the grassroots of the UCP will be in charge," he wrote Thursday night. "Those who do not listen to the grassroots or attempt to thwart their involvement in the decision-making process, will be removed from power."

But if there's a "control" mentality that much of those record throngs bring to the United Conservative AGM, political veterans have a warning for them:

Parties don't work that way.

"The reality of modern politics is that the influence of the elected board is overstated, or not that significant," says David Yager, the president of the Wildrose party when Smith led it a decade ago.

These were thankless tasks to run party operations, especially outside of election periods — it was administrative, technical governance fodder, and nobody wanted the jobs.

"You didn't go to the bathroom in the middle of a meeting because you came back in and you discovered you were president," Yager quipped.

That couldn't be farther from the excitement buzzing around Danielle Smith's party in 2023. Local UCP groups and Take Back Alberta have hosted multiple candidate forums for posts like vice-president of communications and south regional director. Other activists have made candidate interview videos.

It stems from misinformation about how much the boards matter, says Dustin Franks, who was a Calgary director of the party until being swept out by the so-called "freedom movement" last fall.

"It's like a dog who (chases and) finally gets the bumper off a car, and then they're like, I don't know what to do now," Franks told CBC News. "What is their movement trying to accomplish apart from taking over a board?"

It's those policy issues, like residual COVID frustration, that animate many of the new UCPers. Joanny Liu, is a traditional Chinese medical doctor who helped lead "freedom rallies" in Calgary during the pandemic, and is now running for UCP secretary.

"It's really important to press our MLAs to bring all those policies, the best ones, into law," Liu told a Take Back gathering last week at a northeast Calgary hotel.

As much as most party leaders like to say they listen to the grassroots, there's normally tension between the decision-makers and the mere party card-carriers.

Kenney initially wooed United Conservatives with promises of a "grassroots guarantee" that he'd carry forth their wishes.

But that willingness hit a wall in 2018, when the members at the first UCP convention voted to require parents to be notified if students enrol in a school gay-straight alliance. Not wanting to let the NDP make hay on a socially divisive issue, Kenney rejected that resolution, saying "I hold the pen on the platform."

Federally, Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre is similarly grappling with his party members' recent proposal to ban medical interventions for transgender youth.

Although Smith is generally as driven as this part of the UCP base is on loathing pandemic restrictions, her personal convictions cut against the conservative trend to, as she puts it, "politicize" the situations of transgender or transitioning youth.

At last year's AGM, members overwhelmingly supported a resolution demanding that government protect the rights of parents "so as not to require them to affirm or socially condition a child in a gender identity that is incongruent with the child's birth sex" — but Smith and her cabinet effectively ignored that wish.

It could be different this time, with so many people excited to attend this convention and vote for executives and policy ideas.

Jack Redekop, who's running for the presidency, has promised that his party executive would demand twice-yearly reports from the UCP leader on how they're implementing party policy.

Even though many members misunderstand the party board's ability to get policies approved, they will expect to see action from the premier, says fellow presidential contender Rob Smith. "If they don't, there will probably be some pushback."

This base, after all, turfed Kenney for going against its wishes on pandemic rules, and Rob Smith and Redekop are both folk heroes in many circles for being two of the UCP riding presidents who challenged the ex-premier's leadership.

But these conservatives appear solidly behind Danielle Smith.

Parker praises Smith as a freedom fighter, but sounded his own caution this week on a UCP channel on the social media app Telegram. "The freedom movement cannot be her friends," he wrote. "They must hold her accountable."

It's not clear how much the premier is quietly trying to stage-manage the outcomes of this convention, as leaders often do. Her Saturday speech to the convention crowd, and her reaction to the resolutions voted on later that day, may help shape how much pushback there really is.

Even if Smith is able to successfully shrug off controversial party resolutions like others have, a more activist core of party directors could steer Alberta's governing party in different directions. The stuff a board does do matters: they'll wield control over fundraising messages, candidate nominations, and can frame the conditions around a leadership review — which, if one convention resolution passes, would take place next year.

New guard, old guard

There has been reported friction between the new crop of members and Kenney-era establishment members on the board — including outgoing president Cynthia Moore, whom Parker has called a "power-hungry tyrant."

Insiders say it's wrong to consider the TBA-aligned members of the board as drones willing to carry out the wishes of Parker or the freedom movement. But they risk causing headaches for a leader who will naturally want to assert her own, ahem, control over the party.

"They don't always know what's good for her and what's going to hurt her," says one United Conservative familiar with party matters.

TBA isn't endorsing anybody this year, though other groups have, including the pro-independence Alberta Prosperity Project. The preferred choices for president in the "freedom" crowd are Redekop and Rob Smith, against small-town newspaper owner Ruven Rajoo and Rick Orman, an Alberta cabinet minister in the 1980s who's been active in provincial conservative politics ever since.

Some activists view Orman's long resume as a negative, and argue that he's too much of an establishment man. His pitch at debates is more focused on building a party machine that can defeat the NDP next election, rather than grassroots engagement and changing government policy.

As his way of downplaying the importance of a UCP president in the policy-making food chain, Orman is fond of saying: while more than 3,000 Albertans casting ballots for the UCP board is high by party AGM standards, close to one million voted for Danielle Smith as premier.

At the same time, however, while most Albertans can't weigh in on her leadership until the 2027 general election, that smaller group will get their say sooner.


Jason Markusoff

Producer and writer

Jason Markusoff analyzes what's happening — and what isn't happening, but probably should be — in Calgary, Alberta and sometimes farther afield. He's written in Alberta for more than two decades, previously reporting for Maclean's magazine, Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal. He appears regularly on Power and Politics' Power Panel and various other CBC current affairs shows. Reach him at jason.markusoff@cbc.ca

    Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

    Check Also

    ‘Time stopped for me’: Witness describes aftermath of fatal boat crash

    A resident of a home on a lake north of Kingston., Ont., where three people …