All the Tory Ladies: Inside Kenney’s ‘obsessive’ drive to recruit female candidates for Alberta’s UCP
|National Post 14 Sep 2018 at 10:09|
Leela Aheer was standing in the middle of a rapidly-emptying convention centre, still digesting the results of her party’s first ever leadership vote, when she got word that the winner wanted to speak to her.
A little bewildered, she agreed, and they set up a meeting. The next day, Jason Kenney, the newly-elected leader of the United Conservative Party, was at Aheer’s house. He had taken a look at his new caucus and realized he needed her help to fix a major problem.
“I inherited 27 guys and two women, which is ridiculous,” Kenney told the National Post in a recent interview. “We don’t believe in quotas but, by gosh, we need to do a better job of reflecting diversity by merit. I’ve been a bit obsessive about this, to be honest.”
The MLA for Chestermere-Rocky View, Aheer had supported Brian Jean in the leadership race, her former leader in the Wildrose Party and Kenney’s main rival. Even in the whiplash world of politics, where people go from frenzied combat to smiling conciliation in a matter of days, Kenney’s gesture surprised her.
The UCP formed in July 2017 through a merger of the grassroots Wildrose Party, led by Jean, and the scattered remains of the once-dominant Progressive Conservative Party, led by Kenney. Both female MLAs came from the Wildrose side of the merger.
Like any opposition party, the UCP expects to form government after the next election, and if Kenney defeats Premier Rachel Notley and her NDP next year and gets to build a cabinet, he wants options. So, in his mission to rebuild the province’s conservative political machine, he made it an immediate priority to pull capable people into the party — with an emphasis on recruiting female candidates.
The door, Kenney said to Aheer, would be “swung wide open.”
The meeting lasted about an hour and a half, and when it wrapped up, Aheer tackled her new mandate — to help Kenney reduce the gender disparity within the UCP ranks — with gusto. She says she’s had serious conversations with more than a hundred women, some of whom are now official UCP candidates, some are engaged in nomination contests and others are knocking on doors, fundraising or volunteering.
Kenney has done the same thing, seeking out strong candidates at every event or function he attends and making a point to personally encourage female candidates.
We don’t believe in quotas but, by gosh, we need to do a better job of reflecting diversity by merit
Aheer is a former music teacher, and if she hears someone sing a note or two with a little bit of talent, she can’t resist telling them they’ve got something. So now she does the same with women who would make strong candidates.
“When you see someone who has that gift, you have to tell them,” says Aheer.
The UCP is loath to admit it, but it’s impossible not to see this as a reaction to the Alberta NDP and Justin Trudeau’s federal Liberals.
The Notley’s 53-person caucus includes 25 women and nine female cabinet members. Notley herself was the singular political force that lifted the New Democrats to government in 2015 and almost all the powerful figures in her cabinet are women. Sarah Hoffman is the deputy premier and health minister; Kathleen Ganley is the justice minister and Shannon Phillips is the environment minister, tasked with rolling out the government’s carbon tax and environmental policies. Danielle Larivee plays the role of fixer, carrying the load on complicated legislative efforts like updating the Municipal Government Act and then wrestling with issues in the scandal-plagued child welfare system — both portfolios are littered with tripwires.
The women on the government’s front bench look across the floor at a sea of men who surround Aheer and Airdrie MLA Angela Pitt on the opposition side of the legislature. Three NDP cabinet ministers have had babies while on the job and the party gives off an aura of family-friendliness. Once, during a scrum with reporters, Hoffman sidled up to Brandy Payne, then her associate minister of health, lifted Payne’s baby from her hands and bounced the infant in her arms as she walked into the cabinet meeting. Payne smiled, but seemed unfazed as she continued answering questions.
Status of Women Minister Danielle Larivee makes a funding announcement to help improve the lives of women and girls in Alberta at the Edmonton Intercultural Centre at McCauley school in Edmonton on Tuesday August 7, 2018. John Lucas/for Edmonton Journal
“It’s been an incredibly marked contrast looking across the floor at two women,” said Larivee. “I’m glad to see they’re trying (to recruit female candidates) but it’s very much a policy problem on their side.”
The UCP is a party with “more Richards and Ricks than women,” she said, because they don’t consider the needs of women and families.
As an example, Larivee pointed to a recent government bill that would create a 50 metre no-protest zones around abortion clinics, which the UCP has refused to debate or vote on. Kenney has described the bill as a political stunt and directed his caucus to walk out of the legislature whenever votes are held.
And that’s not just a zippy one-liner by Larivee — with Ric McIver, Rick Strankman and Richard Gotfried outnumbering the two women, it’s literally true. If Richard Starke hadn’t refused to make the transition from PC to UCP, the Ricks and Richards would have doubled the number of women in caucus.
The optimism that accompanied the birth of the UCP, and its consistently sunny poll numbers, have sparked a rush of potential candidates who see a quick path into government. About 280 people registered across the province seeking to be the party’s standard-bearer in one of Alberta’s 87 ridings, according to data from Elections Alberta. But going into this weekend, of the 36 candidates the UCP had already nominated only nine were women.
The disparity illustrates two crucial obstacles for the party in its attempt to diversify, with the first being the power of incumbency. Kenney may be genuinely concerned at the current gender balance in his caucus, but those men are almost all triumphing in their nomination contests. Removing the incumbents from the list leaves seven women and 13 men.
The second obstacle is the party’s promise of open nominations, which leaves candidates almost entirely to their own devices as they battle for the nomination and the leader unable to make endorsements.
Along with the explosion of female candidates, there are many younger candidates vying for UCP nominations who may be surprised by the ferocity of these races. Without party support, it means these candidates are left to duke it out on their own.
“I respect that. I wouldn’t want to run in a nomination where I was given an advantage because I was female,” says Tanya Fir, who recently won the nomination in Calgary-Peigan.
She says the party could have made an “easy fix” and just appointed female candidates, but chose to do it in a way that stays true to conservative principles. It may take longer to change the party’s face, but in the long run, it means the UCP “will attract people who want to win it on their own merits,” Fir says.
Many of the women in nomination contests were enthusiastic about She Leads, an organization that supports conservative women as they venture into politics spearheaded by Laureen Harper and former federal Conservative Party leader Rona Ambrose.
The party hopes it will fill the gap during the nomination contest blackout, especially for women completely new to politics who need advice on how to run a campaign. Kenney says he encouraged Ambrose and Harper to start the group and credits Ambrose for convincing him that the recruitment drive had to start with the party leader.
“There are no secrets to nomination races because it all comes down to hard work selling memberships, fundraising, putting a team together and of course a get-out-the-vote program for the day of the race. Our goal is to help women with this,” said Harper, via email. “And women new to politics who may be interested in running need some help figuring this out.”
The UCP has also been paying attention to research showing a woman generally needs to be asked a few times before she agrees to run. Aheer says she has firsthand knowledge of this, saying that women come to her and ask, “Should I run?” while men tend to ask, “How should I run?”
When she was first asked to run for the Wildrose nomination, Aheer describes a group of seven party members sitting her down — almost like an intervention — and convincing her to run.
“We need to ask more. It’s as simple as that,” says Aheer. “If nobody had asked me I never would have run.”
Looking through the nomination races, and the candidates who have already been selected, there is a wide cross-section of experience that hints at what a possible UCP government may look like.
Tracy Allard was recently nominated to be the UCP candidate in Grande Prairie and, like many of the candidates, she was surprised that Kenney himself made an effort to recruit her.
“I keep hearing about you,” Kenney told her, before encouraging her to seek the nomination. With private sector experience and an emphasis on “common sense,” Allard could be seen as a prototype for the kind of candidate Kenney has been seeking.