In the belly of the beast
I went to the Conservative Party Stampede BBQ and all I got was this lousy photo with Jason Kenney
The first thing you need to know about the Conservative Party Stampede BBQ is there are no questions allowed.
Oh, you can ask any candidate — whether running for the federal party or Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) — whatever question you like. But they can just as easily turn away into the adoring arms of their supporters. There is no formal media availability.
“Just be respectful,” Matthew Benzen, the director of the Calgary Heritage Conservative Association, cautioned as I picked up my media lanyard at Heritage Park for the July 9 event.
Turns out I have a bit of a reputation around these parts.
I experienced this fairly early when I went up to Brian Jean, the former Wildrose leader who’s running for the UCP leadership on a broadly batshit platform, and shook his hand. As I attempted to introduce myself, he said “I know who you are” with evident disdain, turning around to speak with someone who might actually vote for him.
This dynamic is why it took some degree of persistence to get an ironic photo with the Devil himself — lame duck premier Jason Kenney, who has caused untold amounts of suffering throughout his 30-year political career, which has thankfully come to an end.
His appearance at the event had been the subject of doubt. Would he dare show his face and ruin the festive mood? These are the level of stakes at the Stampede BBQ.
My point being that this was not a day for in-depth policy discussions or debate, let alone holding candidates to account. It was a vibes-only affair, and those vibes were characteristically dark when viewed from an outside perspective.
The way interim Conservative leader Candice Bergen put it in her keynote address, you’d think Canada was an entirely harmonious place before 2015, when Justin Trudeau and the mainstream media schemed to divide us through identity politics, a theme which was persistent throughout the night.
The federal candidates played all their greatest hits in their brief addresses to the audience after dinner. As anyone who’s been following this race knows, Pierre Poilievre was the main attraction.
Fire the gatekeepers. Build more homes. Unvaccinated truckers are the most persecuted people in human history. Defund the CBC. Make Canada the freest nation on earth. Canadian oil is the cleanest in the world. We’ve heard it all already.
Prior to the evening’s programming, I spoke to Roger Straathofe, who’s all-in for Jean Charest. He told me he’s been reading friend of the newsletter David Moscrop’s book Too Dumb for Democracy? and is quite enjoying its analysis. Clearly, he’s not your idea of an average Conservative voter.
He said whoever gets the leadership nod needs to have a “program that connects in Ontario and Quebec. It doesn’t matter if it connects here or not.”
“Right now we’re the party of the living dead. We’re wandering in the desert. We need Moses to take us out of here,” Straathofe said, pointing out that Charest has the same initials as Our Lord and Saviour. “It needs to be a centrist kind of view.”
He said he thinks the enthusiasm of Poilievre’s supporters is great for the party, but they need a leader “that resonates with the majority of Canadians.” He doesn’t think Poilievre is up to that task and suspects — perhaps naively — that there’s a “silent majority” within the party who agree with him.
What if Poilievre wins? “I would leave the party. It’s a disaster,” Straathofe said. “Crypto, [firing the president of] the Bank of Canada, that kind of stuff just doesn’t make any sense. It’s not going to go anywhere in this country to get a majority government.”
Charest, for his part, had the thankless task of speaking after Poilievre. Since Charest and I last met, and he gave me COVID, he’s decided to adopt the platform of UCP leadership darling and crypto-Wexiteer Danielle Smith.
He wants to establish an “Alberta Accord” between the Wildrose province in the rest of the country to alter the equalization payment formula “so that it’s fair to Alberta.” He said he wants to give Alberta control over its pension plan. “If you want your own police force, you can have it,” Charest added in his brief address to attendees, checking the boxes of Smith’s proposed Sovereignty Act.
This is a guy whose entire political brand revolves around standing up to Quebec’s separatists. But he wouldn’t be at Calgary Stampede if he wasn’t here to pander.
And all his grovelling has gotten him approximately nowhere. When he was announced as the final speaker of the night, there were many boo’s hissed in his direction. There were also “you’re a Liberal” jeers, referring to his tenure as Quebec’s Liberal premier from 2003-2012, when he advocated policies that are anathema to the federal party, such as carbon taxation and stronger gun control measures.
As I’ve written here before, Charest is old news, which is why he is compelled to adopt these increasingly hardline positions that are the norm in the party he wants to lead. The problem for guys like Straathofe is what they like about Charest — his moderate persona — is precisely the skin he’s trying to shed to appeal to a larger swath of the party.
Speaking of pandering to the Wexiteers, I caught up with Drew Barnes, who was for a while my MLA in Cypress-Medicine Hat. Barnes sits as an independent after getting booted from the UCP for his outspoken view that the party’s paltry COVID mitigation measures were a bridge too far.
Prior to his ejection, he called for a referendum on Alberta separatism on the day of the next provincial election in his capacity as co-chair of Kenney’s “Fair Deal Panel” to examine ways Alberta is supposedly getting screwed by the feds. He’s about as hardcore an Alberta separatist as it gets for an elected official.
Like Poilievre, Barnes is a broken record of right-wing talking points, and they sing a similar tune.
Small government. Local decision-making. Strong families. Make Alberta the freest and most prosperous jurisdiction on earth.
Barnes said he might run for the UCP in next year’s provincial election, depending on who wins that leadership race, which occurs about a month after the federal leadership vote. Otherwise, he’s going to stay independent or run for a smaller right-wing party.
As for the federal race, Charest is simply not an option for Barnes, but he appreciates the man’s hustle. “I’m grateful that Jean Charest has been paying attention to those of us in Alberta [who] have been speaking about the inequities,” Barnes said.
He said he likes Poilievre for his “conservative economic freedom individual opportunity values [sic],” but is also looking at Roman Baber and Leslyn Lewis, with their apocalyptic warnings about a socialist Canada.
During dinner, I spoke to Nancy Saxberg, who is one of the many thousands of Conservatives who signed up for the party specifically to vote for Poilievre.
She was somewhat disappointed by the lack of an ability to interact directly with the candidates at the event.
Saxberg pitched Poilievre as a sort of anti-politics candidate.
He’s not like the other politicians. He tells it like it is. “It’s refreshing. It might be a total act like a lot of politicians, but so far he seems more genuine than some of the other people,” she said.
She called comparing Poilievre to Trump a “ridiculous” effort to smear him. “I don’t think he has anything in common with Trump at all. He’s way more articulate to start with,” Saxberg said.
But isn’t ‘fire the gatekeepers’ the same fundamental message as ‘drain the swamp’? On that account, she conceded, there is some common ground.
“I can see the commonalities in that they were both not your average politician, not your average candidate, but Trump is an American in a completely different political environment than Canada,” Saxberg said, as if trends south of the border don’t have a tendency to resurface here a few years later.
What about the whole Patrick Brown imbroglio? If you recall, he was suddenly disqualified from the leadership race over allegations that someone who worked for his campaign was being paid by a third-party in contravention of electoral laws. Those allegations are being challenged in court, where Brown is represented by Marie Henein, probably the most famous lawyer in Canada. Bergen made vague reference to the allegations in her address.
I spoke to former Whitecourt mayor and long-time Conservative Party member Maryann Chichak, whom I know fairly well from my brief tenure at the Whitecourt Star, and she ran me through the party line.
“There are always things that happen behind the scenes that we’ll never be privy to, and sometimes shouldn’t be privy to. It’s no different when corporations, or even municipalities, deal with things behind the scenes and there’s some things that aren’t made public and remain behind the scenes,” she said.
OK, but isn’t it a bit different if you’re running to be a leader of a party? Doesn’t the party membership ought to know what’s happening?
To which she said:
As long as there was an explanation that was given that suffices the general parameters of why he was disqualified, I’m good with that. I don’t need to know the inside final decision on it. I’ll take it for its word that it was researched, and that the process was done with integrity and transparency within the committee itself and that the grounds they disqualified him on were valid.
In other words, you can’t handle the truth, but neither can we.
If there was one glimpse into the mindset of Canadian conservatives amidst all the vibing, it was that.
Conservatives vote for their next leader on Sept. 10.