It was a change so small it was barely mentioned when Alberta’s NDP government passed sweeping election legislation a year and a half ago, but it’s opened up a new front for political attacks against the United Conservative Party.
Under the Fair Elections Financing Act, as soon as a potential candidate “announces his or her intention” to join a party’s nomination race, they must register with Elections Alberta, which then posts the names publicly on its website.
What qualifies as an announcement to join the race is not defined in the legislation, and could take the form of a social media post, or even an inadvertent leak to the media or a blog, according to Elections Alberta.
As a result, a party can find itself on the defensive about so-called “bozo eruptions” from nomination candidates who are unknown to them, or who typically would have been rejected after the standard vetting procedure. The UCP is looking for candidates in 66 ridings and virtually anyone can register as a participant in the race, which has resulted in a few controversies in recent nomination contests leading up to next year’s election.
The United Conservatives say the rule change doesn’t make sense from a policy perspective and seems entirely designed for political gain.
“Almost every move the NDP made to the nomination contests was done to make it harder for opposition parties and easier for the NDP,” said Jason Nixon, the UCP’s chief whip, who was one of the MLAs scrutinizing the bill at committee.
Although the same rules apply to all the parties, Nixon said the NDP doesn’t hold open, contested nomination races and isn’t garnering the same grassroots enthusiasm for them anyway.
“We have so many more people engaged,” he said.
Nixon said it’s possible that nomination contestants who aren’t even UCP members could be listed on the Elections Alberta website and subject to attacks in the media, even though they’d be rejected immediately by the party’s vetting process.
In an email to the Post, Christina Gray, the minister responsible for democratic renewal, said the UCP should “reflect on who their party values are attracting as potential candidates.”
The rule change was designed to track candidates who “engage in raising and spending money before they are officially endorsed by the party they are seeking to run for,” she said.
A spokesperson for Elections Alberta pointed to Elections New Brunswick and Elections Canada as jurisdictions that regulate nomination contests, but neither of those agencies track candidates who have merely announced their intention to join a nomination contest. In New Brunswick, nomination contestants register only after they have been accepted by the party. Federally, the names of nomination contestants are posted only after the race is over.
Whatever the reasoning, the change now allows party operatives to scour the nomination candidates list and conduct opposition research on them before their own parties have had a chance to organize the vetting process.
Last month, Todd Beasley, a candidate in the Brooks-Medicine Hat riding, was turfed from the nomination contest after anti-Muslim comments he made came to light.
And Sandra Kim, a nomination candidate in Maskwacis-Wetaskiwin, came under fire for sharing social media posts in 2015 that said she did “not support homosexuality or homosexual marriage.” The candidate apologized and, in response to the story, UCP executive director Janice Harrington told the Edmonton Journal that a “rigorous vetting process” for nomination candidates in that riding was still underway.
In the wake of the revelations, UCP leader Jason Kenney sent a memo to contestants urging them to behave themselves and focus on positive campaigning. After the memo was leaked to the Edmonton Journal, Kenney posted the full text on his Twitter account.
The memo warned candidates about “overheated rhetoric” and urged them to be “magnanimous in victory, and gracious in defeat.” About 200 hundred people are vying for the 66 available UCP nominations, the letter said.
Kenney even urged nomination candidates to get off the internet and engage in old-fashioned retail politics instead.
The letter focused on “message discipline,” which Kenney has emphasized since becoming leader of the party. It also suggested that the UCP party won’t be taking advantage of the law change to launch more attacks.
“Don’t go over the top in attacking the NDP. The public already wants to replace this failed government. They don’t need overheated rhetoric from us to be persuaded of the need for positive change. Voters simply want to be sure that we are a competent, mainstream alternative,” Kenney wrote. “By all means, critique the NDP’s failed policies, but let’s not stoop to the NDP’s level with nasty ad hominem attacks. Disagree without being disagreeable.”
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