On Sept. 21, another conservative MLA in Alberta dropped out of the newly formed United Conservative Party. Rick Fraser, the MLA for Calgary-South East, became the third MLA to quit the party to become an independent following the likes of Derek Fildebrandt and Richard Starke. This string of resignations followsthe unity vote of the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Party in July as part of a abid to gain control of the government back from the Alberta NDP, who ended 44 years of Progressive Conservative (PC) rule back in 2015. From the outset, the attempt to bring together the fractured conservative forces in Alberta has created divisions amongst members of both parties, and these divisions seem to fester even after the unity vote.
By the early 2010s, the decadent PC party had ruled over Alberta unopposed for some 40 years. With the constant argument that there was an out-of-control spending problem in Alberta, the PCs brought about deep cuts to social spending year after year. The PC government was also riddled with corruption scandals, backroom deals and swindles that began to upset their electoral base. In 2015 a wind of change, which was more like a hurricane, blew across the province, primarily in the cities and larger towns where the majority of the Albertan population lives, and toppled this house of cards. Prompted by the oil crash and out-of-touch then-Premier Jim Prentice who told Alberta workers to “look in the mirror”, the NDP under Rachel Notley unseated the PC dynasty, although not without the help of vote splitting between the PCs and the Wildrose Party. This historic defeat has thrown the ruling class and the oligarchs into a frenzied panic over how to defeat the NDP and reclaim power. After a long painful process, the two parties finally united. But the internal crisis remains among conservatives on what program to put forward to win the 2019 election.
Within the UCP, there are those who believe that unloading the burden of the crisis directly onto the workers through austerity is the way forward. There are also those who believe that an austerity program is not the way to win the coming election; the recently resigned Rick Fraser falls into this camp. In a recent interview, Fraser commented that he has grown dissatisfied with the party’s unrelenting focus on austerity policies. He understands that there is no appetite in the population for austerity and that you cannot win an election by promising to cut working people’s jobs, wages and benefits. It is yet to be seen if Mr. Fraser’s concern and subsequent resignation resonates amongst other conservative MLAs, but it is hard to imagine that many of them forget that it was exactly a program of outright austerity that ended PC rule in 2015.
What is clear is that the four candidates running to be the next UCP leader are all determined to run on a campaign of massive austerity, corporate tax cuts, and repealing much of the NDP’s pro-labour legislation. In short, this is an attack on working people all across Alberta, urban and rural. Wages will be cut back or frozen altogether. There will be massive job cuts in the public sector leaving thousands of people unemployed, when Alberta’s unemployment rate has only just crept back up to 2014 level. The corporate tax cuts will only benefit the oil oligarchs with more profit, whilst the real wages of workers go into decline. This is the electoral program Mr. Fraser does not want the UCP to run on—not because he has sympathy for the working class, but because he thinks that such a program will rob the UCP of the popular support it needs to win.
Mr. Fraser also stated that one of the reasons he left was because the UCP has avoided speaking about social issues, and that the party should be speaking about social issues with “grace and compassion”. But he seemed to have forgotten to be graceful and compassionate back in 2014 when he voted against supporting the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), a student network that promotes “welcoming, caring and respectful and safe learning environments for LGBTQ students and their allies” in junior high and high schools. The opposition to GSA, which has been mainly led by the Alberta conservatives, has put LGBTQ children at greater risk of bullying in school and potentially at home. This has in turn led to higher rates of depression, homelessness, and suicide amongst LGBTQ youth. Somewhere between 2014 and now, Mr. Fraser stumbled upon the power of “grace and compassion”.
With election time coming up, it would not be surprising to see more internal rifts in the UCP. The departure of Rick Fraser is one of the many indications of this rift. Though united in their hatred of the NDP and the working class it represents, the conservatives are yet to be united on how to defeat the NDP in the election. The party is still divided between those who believe that the party should stick to its socially conservative base, and those who want the party to project a more moderate or liberal face; between those who argue for austerity measures, and those who argue for a more measured economic policy that does not emphasize cuts. But no matter which wing comes out on top, a victory for the UCP would be a disaster for the Alberta working class.