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Alberta conservatives react angrily to labour federation's call for boycott of major UCP donors

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AFL president Gil McGowan. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Alberta's United Conservatives: They can dish it out, but they can't take it.

Well, Premier Jason Kenney's UCP wasn't the first political party to discover turnabout is fair play, and it's unlikely to be the last.

Still, it was amusing to watch UCP activists and staffers clutching their pearls on social media Monday night and yesterday as word got around the Alberta Federation of Labour planned to name and shame businesses that make big donations to political action committees bankrolling the UCP agenda.

It wasn't the shaming bit that seemed to bother the angry government supporters and staffers -- it was the political B-word: Boycott.

Or as the AFL described the purpose of its website -- BoycottUCPDonors.ca -- giving Albertans "the information they need to make informed consumer choices."

Some UCP supporters asked plaintively: How could you kick businesses when they're down? Don't you know we're in the middle of a pandemic?

"It's hard to put in words how crappy this is," tweeted Ryan Hastman, deputy executive director of the UCP caucus. "For shame."

"It is an attempt to intimidate businesses (who are suffering through tough times) from participating in the political process," huffed former UCP nomination candidate Len Thom in a supportive tweet. It was Thom, alert readers of this blog will recall, who in a politically ambitious moment once promised "to get rid of nanny state speed limits on secret provincial highways."

Thom, presumably, would prefer that we forgot the AFL's boycott call targets only businesses that donated to political action committees to circumvent the province’s NDP-era political financing laws, which prohibit donations by companies and unions and impose limits on the size of donations.

One well-known mainstream media commentator, experiencing a pearl-clutching moment of his own, called the AFL campaign "McCarthyism," surely the lamest take of the day. The tweet appears to have been deleted, so we won't name the usually sensible tweeter to protect the guilty.

Well, these are tough times, it goes without saying, that are being used by Premier Jason Kenney's UCP as an excuse to kick significant numbers of Albertans while they're down -- not least among them recipients of assured income for the severely handicapped, education support workers, public university employees, the working poor, and outspoken women brave enough to speak up against the government's policies.

"Why should a nurse, a teacher or a firefighter buy a car from an auto dealer who wants them to be fired or have their wages cut?" asked AFL president Gil McGowan in the news release announcing the website.

He went on:

"Why should Albertans who believe in a strong public health-care system and a strong public education system patronize a business that is cheerleading cuts and privatization? Why should workers spend their hard-earned money in establishments run by people who want to suppress their wages, eliminate their overtime, silence their voices and limit their rights?"

Indeed, why should any Albertan who wants a secure retirement do business with any donor to the generously funded Conservative PAC called Shaping Alberta's Future that's been trying to persuade us to let Premier Kenney grab our Canada pension plan?

It's important to remember when we contemplate this uproar that Alberta's conservatives have not exactly been strangers to the idea of boycotting businesses -- or even whole provinces -- when the idea suits them.

Who can forget the boycott of Tim Hortons coffee shops for yanking a pro-pipeline advertisement from its in-house ad screens? If memory serves, Premier Kenney and other big-name Conservatives quickly jumped on that bandwagon.

Or what about the successful boycott of Earl's Restaurants for replacing Alberta beef on its menu with beef from the U.S. that was "certified humane"?

Then there was Alberta Agriculture Minister Devin Dreeshen demanding that we all cancel our Globe and Mail subscriptions because the newspaper ran an op-ed by an animal rights activist; Infrastructure Minister Prasad Panda and Premier Kenney suggesting we boycott HSBC when the bank decided not to lend money to new oilsands projects; or the boycott ginned up by UCP activists of Lush Cosmetics for the company's opposition to new pipelines.

Kenney, of course -- and his predecessor, the NDP's Rachel Notley -- seemed to think that boycotting the entire B.C. wine industry was a fine idea. And if that didn't work, Kenney vowed to "turn off the taps" to the whole province next door.

Yet the same people now want us to think encouraging some Albertans not to do business with companies that finance PACs that support a government bent on putting nurses and teachers out of work, declaring war on doctors in the middle of a pandemic, privatizing public services, ending consumer protections for car buyers, and gutting our pensions is somehow shameful.

Sorry, but that dog won't hunt!

Nothing could be more Albertan than a politically motivated boycott of a business you don't agree with. It's just that -- quelle horreur! -- we don't all disagree with the same things.

I'm not persuaded the AFL's website will be all that effective, or cause any of those businesses much pain. And if there's a unionized company on that list, the AFL is sure to hear about it from its own members.

What's more, similar unauthorized efforts by NDP supporters have gone awry before, as in 2011 when a staffer in then Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason's constituency office threatened to launch a boycott of an Edmonton rental company that was putting signs for the federal Conservative candidate in front of rental properties he owned in the nearby federal Edmonton Strathcona riding. (Mason shrugged it off, as any sensible politician would.)

The Tory candidate in question? Why, none other than Ryan Hastman!

So, is this an outrage? Not a chance. And it doesn't hurt businesses that enthusiastically support the UCP's worst policies to know their customers are paying attention.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald.

Image: David J. Climenhaga​

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