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Jason Kenney’s political rivals criticize his silence on social issues

Former Alberta PC Party leader Jason Kenney announces the results of the referendum on unity in Calgary, Alta., Saturday, July 22, 2017. The space on politically charged social issues that Mr. Kenney has left near-empty is being exploited by his political opponents on Alberta’s left.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Jason Kenney says he's not releasing a policy platform before a consultation with the "grassroots." Even as the former federal cabinet minister runs for the leadership of Alberta's newly formed United Conservative Party, he says setting out firm policies before winning the contest, and speaking with members, would represent a top-down leadership style.

But politics abhors a vacuum. The space on politically charged social issues that Mr. Kenney has left near-empty is being exploited by his political opponents on Alberta's left, and now a fellow leadership candidate.

Mr. Kenney, whose early public life was steeped in the politics of social conservatism, has focused his campaign around the financial missteps and deficit budgets of Alberta's NDP government. But NDP, Liberal and other Alberta critics – including fellow UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer, a former Progressive Conservative organizer – are trying to keep Mr. Kenney's past comments and his current dearth of firm social policies in focus.

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His reputation as a social conservative might help him win the leadership race among some Alberta UCP members – but some say it could be a political liability as he faces the broader electorate in his quest to become premier.

"Our opponents won't give conservatives a free pass on social issues like this, and neither will the general public," Mr. Schweitzer wrote in an open letter to UCP members this week, after Calgary's largest-ever Pride parade.

The letter targeted Mr. Kenney specifically for his past stands on LGBT issues.

In an interview, Mr. Schweitzer – an underdog candidate in the leadership race – said Mr. Kenney is staying mainly mum now "because he's been on the wrong side of history so many times."

Mr. Kenney has significant organizational chops, along with a cadre of well-connected conservatives on his campaign team. He has defied doubters who said he could never win the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party, which led to this summer's merger with the Wildrose Party. He and former Wildrose leader Brian Jean are the front-runners in the leadership contest.

But Alberta is not the province it was two decades ago. Many voters do not like their long-standing reputation for being more socially conservative than other parts of the country. Recent elections have shown that voters are not comfortable with hidebound social views.

"It's a risk for the 2019 election. We simply can't have another 'lake of fire' situation," Mr. Schweitzer said.

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Mr. Schweitzer is referring to Alberta's infamous 2012 provincial election. That was the year that nearly every poll in the weeks leading up to voting day pointed to a Wildrose win, but the Progressive Conservatives were buoyed in the final days by fears that a number of Wildrose candidates – including one that had written that gays would burn in a "lake of fire" in the afterlife – were too socially conservative. The PCs formed government for another three years.

For his part, Mr. Kenney wasn't available for an interview on this subject but his campaign team said it's "unfortunate to see Mr. Schweitzer ape NDP talking points, and alienate himself from membership of the UCP."

Campaign spokesman Blaise Boehmer added: "Mr. Kenney has been absolutely consistent since he launched his campaign in the summer of 2016: He's focused on getting the Alberta economy back on track and will not legislate on hot-button social issues."

A decade ago, Mr. Kenney said marriage should be between a man and a woman. He did, as a young politico in 1990, act as a spokesman for his U.S. Catholic university's anti-abortion group. He has recently given his critics fodder by saying that parents should be informed when their children join gay-straight alliances (GSAs) – a move many say could out gay students before they are ready.

At the same time, Mr. Kenney isn't easily pigeonholed. He often mentions that as immigration minister, he created a special class for LGBT refugees fleeing persecution. He quotes former New York mayor Ed Koch, who once said, "If you agree with me on nine out of 12 issues, vote for me. If you agree with me on 12 out of 12 issues, see a psychiatrist." Last year – while still a sitting Conservative MP – he was unequivocal about the need to jettison the traditional definition of marriage, as only between a man and a woman, from the party's policy book.

"It's a no-brainer. This issue was resolved 10 years ago," Mr. Kenney said at the time. "There is no point in having … obsolete language about something that was changed in law and society a decade ago."

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Political scientist Tom Flanagan said avoiding specifics on policy, "allows your opponents to conjure up all sorts of hobgoblins."

But he said Mr. Kenney and his team must have decided the pluses of not delving into a specific policy outweigh the minuses. For instance, holding off on specific policy planks forces party members to instead focus on Mr. Kenney's qualifications as a popular former federal cabinet minister. And many in the party agree that policy needs to come from the "grassroots."

"I wouldn't second-guess him – he's been right about the big things thus far," Dr. Flanagan, University of Calgary professor emeritus, said of Mr. Kenney.

"Remember also that he's able to get advice from [former prime minister] Stephen Harper, who's the master strategist of our time on the conservative side of politics," he added. "But the race is no walk in the park. Brian Jean is proving to be a formidable opponent."

Video: United Conservative Party must learn from past mistakes, Jason Kenney says (The Canadian Press)
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