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Jason Kenney launches bid to lead UCP by pitching to religious right

How soon before Jason Kenney makes permitting the teaching of "creation science" in Alberta schools a formal promise to the religious social conservative base whose votes he needs to lead the United Conservative Party?

Don't laugh. It seems like we're already halfway there. And Kenney only officially announced his UCP leadership campaign at a north Edmonton community hall yesterday morning!

Let's connect the dots:

Dot No. 1: The former Harper Government cabinet minister told 500 or so supporters at the Italian Cultural Centre that the outline of Alberta Education's new Social Studies curriculum is "riddled with politically correct themes like oppression and colonialism and climate change."

Who knew climate science is merely politically correct spin?

The answer to that rhetorical question, of course, is that Kenney "knew," as do many of the conspiratorially minded folk on the Western Canadian right who fervently challenge climate science as inconvenient propaganda cooked up by socialists in lab coats.

Never mind that the science is pretty hard to challenge on, you know, scientific grounds, or that the planned curriculum changes are a project of an Education Department review not NDP policy. Education Minister David Eggen, a teacher by profession, obviously has bought into the curriculum review, so for good or ill the government now owns it.

Dot No. 2: As he has repeatedly since returning from Ottawa to save Alberta from itself, Kenney again attacked the NDP Government of Rachel Notley yesterday for "undermining parental authority" in education.

This is a coded reference to his opposition to the law passed by the Progressive Conservative government of Jim Prentice in 2014 requiring schools receiving public funds, which they essentially all do, to permit students to form gay-straight alliances and meet on school property if they see the need.

The NDP has tried to enforce the law in the face of defiant resistance by some religious schools, and Kenney has tried to frame that government response to this open law breaking as an assault on the rights of parents and religious freedom. He has also controversially advocated outing students who join such clubs to their parents.

So by raising this again as a plank that remains tightly wedged into his platform, Kenney is signalling to his supporters on the religious right that his opposition to student rights and province-wide educational standards has not softened. Moreover, he is doing precisely what he accuses the NDP of doing: arguing that in education ideology must trump scientific and historical facts.

Whether he was trying to have it both ways or just wanted to walk back something he had blurted out to a friendly audience, when Kenney said of climate science and colonialism, "not that those things shouldn't be taught, but they shouldn't be exclusively taught as virtually the only subjects," he was trotting out an argument familiar to the religious right. To wit: You can teach evolution, as long as you have to teach "creation science" and other such shibboleths of the religious right as well.

This may seem like a reach today. But it's a straight line and not a particularly long one from Dot No. 1 to Dot No. 2.

With the UCP leadership race bound to get rough -- and with other candidates already moving to exploit Kenney's perceived weakness on LGBTQ rights -- is it really implausible we'll see this social conservative Ottawa insider double down and throw another juicy bone to the religious right?

He's been using climate change denial, vows to repeal NDP climate policies and pitches to the religious right for months to raise money and win support. So why not?

As for Kenney's key theme yesterday -- the one the mainstream media concentrated on -- he excoriated the NDP and Premier Notley for being too close to the Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. That was accompanied by the usual snide socks-and-selfie jokes from the stout and aging former enfant terrible of the social conservative scene.

With the Alberta economy widely reported to be on the rebound, thereby weakening one of Kenney's best talking points, this doesn't seem like a half bad strategy -- although getting along with Ottawa has worked for the NDP and Alberta better than the hostility of past conservative governments ever did.

Conservative politicians will continue to poormouth the Alberta economy and pray for a few more months of hard times, of course. Still, they are right to recognize distrust of Ottawa is bred in the bone in Alberta.

So, even though Conservatives from Alberta ran the place for a decade and grew comfortable amid the fleshpots of the National Capital Region, promising more conflict and less conciliation with Ottawa can be counted on to strike a chord with plenty of Alberta voters.

Anyway, bashing Ottawa and its "elites" is a formula that's worked well for Kenney for nigh on a quarter century now – at least half of which he's been a resident of Ottawa and a charter member of its elite.

So far, Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean and Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer have also both officially reached for the UCP brass ring, and "liberty conservative" Derek Fildebrandt, the inveterate, intemperate Tweeter and libertarian nut, continues to dip his toe without quite jumping.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga' blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Flickr/mmmswan

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