Guest Post: UCP polarization of Alberta politics neutralizes the language of right-wing extremism

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PHOTOS: Young anti-Bill 6 protesters interviewed by a reporter at the Alberta Legislature in November 2015. Note the overheated genocide rhetoric in the sign at bottom right. Below: More extreme rhetoric from the same event; commentators Barret Weber, the author of this post, Naomi Lakritz, and Ricardo Acuña.

Guest Post by Barret Weber

Last weekend’s outbreak of racist violence in Charlottesville, Va., after a massive rally by neo-Nazis, provides painful reminder of the rise of fascism in the United States. Did I really just write that sentence?

Yet anyone who understands Alberta politics will know that our province is not immune to the root causes of such events.

At least since the election of Rachel Notley’s NDP Government in 2015, Alberta’s right wing has been using exaggerated language of “radical socialists” ruining Alberta at every turn, with the argument that only it can resurrect Alberta’s paradise lost.

This has turned into Jason Kenney’s effort to “unite the right” (interestingly, the same language by the neo-Nazis in the United States) which began on July 6, 2016, with the launch of his campaign to lead the Progressive Conservative Party. The PC campaign official commenced on Oct. 1 that year.

Surely one of the most prominent features of Mr. Kenney’s campaign has been a full-on assault on the truth.

How did Alberta become so polarized?

The now defunct Wildrose Party played a key role in the polarization of political discourse in Alberta by driving the province’s right wing further to the right as the official opposition led by Brian Jean.

While there were perhaps other precursors, the right’s reaction to Bill 6, the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, introduced by the new NDP government in the Legislature on Nov. 17, 2015, was a key turning point early in the current government’s mandate.

As part of a set of initiatives to reform labour laws in the province, Bill 6 was designed to provide the same protections to the more than 50,000 paid agricultural workers across the province as enjoyed by other working Albertans.

Mr. Jean supported these protections during the 2015 Wildrose leadership race. As a leadership candidate, he said: “I do believe that you can’t have any rights unless all people are covered by those rights. I think all people, all Albertans, need to be protected.” By December of the same year, though, he had flip-flopped on the issue.

The attack on Bill 6 highlighted the cozy relationship between Wildrose and PC MLAs and angry websites like Rebel Media and other vitriolic social media groups that proudly defend inequality and inequity. Exaggerated claims became commonplace – including mottos like “save the family farm from genocide.” Since then, it has not been uncommon to hear conservative politicians regularly reference and gather inspiration from these frightening conspiracy sites.

If we take a moment to reflect on what happened with Bill 6, a clear picture emerges of a group of workers, called farm workers, being granted the basic human rights that they deserve such as Workers’ Compensation protection and inclusion under basic employment and safety law. Even today, the myth circulates that farms and workers weren’t properly consulted, which is simply untrue.

In any case, as commentator Naomi Lakritz wrote for the Calgary Herald, “Let’s stop arguing that stakeholders weren’t consulted enough over human rights legislation. Isn’t that really just a euphemism for watering down the legislation to placate the monetary interests of those opposed to basic workplace protections?”

It’s a question we can only answer in the affirmative.

But, instead of costing the Wildrose in popularity, the party appears to have benefited from its stance against basic employee rights. Clearly, it has concluded that siding with employers in opposition to the rights of specific workers could be good for its own political fortunes, while shoring-up support with its rural base.

While the NDP was clearly doing the right thing in theory, once its policies were circulated through the infrastructure of the right-wing spin machine, the government was portrayed as targeting the family farm, the ability of children to work on their family’s farms, and rural Alberta itself, among many other unsavory (and untrue) intentions.

Promoting inequity, riding the disinformation machine, and singling out vulnerable minority groups was revealed to be the right’s path to “take Alberta back.”

The language of belligerence

The lesson learned was a Trumpian one: The truth of the matter is irrelevant as long as one never admits that the premise is a fraud.

Opposition to Bill 6 never would have received the attention it did without the media and conservative parties latching on to Rebel Media’s themes of the decline of the family farm and rural Alberta.

While communication lapses by the new government clearly did occur, without a concerted disinformation campaign led by the Rebel and followed by Wildrose and PC MLAs and their supporters, the conversation likely would have gone quite differently.

After all, the PCs were well aware that farm workers lacked basic protections before they were turfed in 2015, but had simply refused to address the problem.

Kenney is either really, really bad at political theory, or he is lying

As Ricardo Acuña of the Parkland Institute has pointed out, it’s time to demand Alberta’s political right to stop calling the current NDP government “socialist.” This is sheer nonsense.

The idea that the NDP is a party of “socialists” is beyond the pale and defies any basic analysis of the government’s official statements, policies, track record, and even consideration of strategic errors. While there are certainly legitimate criticisms of the current government to be made, that it is “socialist” isn’t one of them.

This is clearly part of broader dog-whistle campaign that reveals the level of conservative entitlement in the province. The underlying message is that one is either a conservative or a socialist, and, if you’re a socialist you clearly aren’t a real Albertan. Let’s be clear on this: this is the language of McCarthyism and xenophobia.

It also makes the language of the right seem less extreme by portraying what are essentially middle-of-the-road policies as extreme and “socialist.”

These rhetorical gestures drive debate further to the right and attempt to discredit specific ideas to the point they can be driven from public policy discussion altogether.

These would include important ideas such as collective ownership of public assets, protecting and strengthening workers’ rights, the need to expand public health care and social programs to respond to the realities of contemporary life, the need to roll back Ralph Klein’s crass and unsuccessful privatization experiments, moving Alberta beyond right-wing market fundamentalism, and the need for bold actions to mitigate climate change.

The right’s solution to everything that ails Alberta is to demonize, deny and diminish any opposition to the conservative sense of entitlement.

Barret Weber is an Edmonton researcher with a doctorate in sociology from the University of Alberta. This is one of several guest posts that will run while David Climenhaga is officially on vacation.

Categories Alberta Politics Guest Posts