Which way will the wedge slice? Alberta NDP and UCP adopt opposite strategies on gay-straight alliances

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PHOTOS: Jason Kenney may be the UCP’s leader now, but he’s still doing his best to appeal to his red-meat social conservative base. (Photo: Dave Cournoyer, Daveberta.ca.) Below: NDP Education Minister David Eggen, NDP Premier Rachel Notley, and UCP House Leader Jason Nixon.

The impassioned, at times bitter, tone of the debate over the latest school gay-straight alliance legislation to come before the Alberta Legislature suggests both the New Democratic Party Government and the United Conservative Party Opposition see their positions as winners with the electorate.

As always in such situations, one of them is almost certainly wrong. But which way this wedge is actually likely to slice the Alberta vote remains far from clear.

A week ago, NDP Education Minister David Eggen introduced Bill 24, An Act to Protect Gay-Straight Alliances, legislation designed to prevent school administrators from informing parents in all but a few situations if their children have joined a GSA at their school, unless the young people themselves agree.

“We wanted to make it crystal clear that kids will not be outed,” Mr. Eggen told the CBC last week.

UCP Leader Jason Kenney immediately accused the NDP of “using this sensitive matter as a partisan political wedge issue.”

This is ironic, seeing as it was Mr. Kenney’s use of the issue as a partisan political wedge that provoked the NDP to introduce the amendments to the Alberta School Act in the first place.

Mr. Kenney created a storm of controversy last March when, during a congenial visit with like-minded members of the Calgary Herald Editorial Board, he opined that while he might not repeal the law reluctantly brought in by premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservatives in 2015 that requires students to be permitted to form a gay-straight alliance at school if they see the need, their parents should always be notified if they sign up.

This infuriated GSA supporters, who argued that in many cases it could put LGBTQ children’s lives at risk, but was red meat to Mr. Kenney’s social conservative base.

This blog wondered at the time if his position meant Mr. Kenney was turning into the Anita Bryant of Canada, a pretty good line for that tiny minority of readers old enough to remember who Anita Bryant is.

I wrote at the time: “Everybody – including Mr. Kenney, obviously – understands that the effect of such a policy, as the Globe and Mail’s Tabitha Southey cleverly put it, would be ‘basically just telling the kids that the GSAs are going to go live on a farm now, and no, you can’t visit them.’” Ms. Southey, alas, is no longer with Canada’s National Website.

The heat from the blowback was intense enough that Mr. Kenney made himself scarce before resurfacing safe and well-fed a month later at a fund-raiser for then B.C. premier Christy Clark’s Liberals in a chichi Vancouver restaurant. An NDP-Green alliance now runs the province to the west.

Notwithstanding the promise Monday by UCP House Leader Jason Nixon that the Opposition Caucus would be allowed a free vote on the bill, Mr. Kenney vowed the next day that his Legislative Caucus, of which he is leader but not yet a member, would vote against Bill 24.

Of course, given the makeup of the UCP Caucus, it’s quite possible both a free vote and a unanimous vote could happily coexist within its ranks.

In any case, both Mr. Kenney’s UCP supporters and Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP seem to have cranked up the rhetoric on the issue.

As political commentator Dave Cournoyer argued on his thoughtful Daveberta.ca blog, “Kenney and the UCP are betting that Albertans will forgive their social conservative stances when reminded of the NDP’s more unpopular economic policies. Notley and the NDP are betting that this bill to protect Alberta students will convince voters consider otherwise.”

Many commentators had imagined that Mr. Kenney, once safely ensconced as leader of the UCP, would pivot to a more moderate position on social issues. Now it seems as if he will defy that conventional wisdom and continue to thump his social conservative tub.

It’s always dangerous, of course, to hold up an American mirror to a Canadian jurisdiction – even one as Americanized as Alberta – in an effort to suss out how such a controversy might play out.

Still, the results of Tuesday’s elections in the not-entirely-dissimilar republic next door are suggestive of possibilities, if not certainties.

“A Year After Trump, Women and Minorities Give Groundbreaking Wins to Democrats,” read a headline in yesterday’s online edition of the New York Times.

“If the 2016 presidential election reflected a primal roar from disaffected white working class voters that delivered for President Trump and Republicans, Tuesday’s results showed the potential of a rising coalition of women, minorities, and gay and transgender people who are solidly aligning with Democrats,” the story began.

By all appearances, Mr. Kenney is still channeling Donald Trump on many issues. Ms. Notley’s New Democrats are seeking a centrist sweet spot not unlike that identified with American Democrats.

So can the same thing happen in Alberta as happened in the United States on Tuesday night?

It’s too soon to tell…

Categories Alberta Politics