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Can a progressive gadfly offer unhappy Albertans a way to send their premier a message?

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Progress Alberta Executive Director and now Senate "nominee" candidate Duncan Kinney. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

Progressive gadfly Duncan Kinney, executive director of the progressive news and advocacy organization behind the Progress Report newsletter and podcast, is the first Albertan to file his papers with Elections Alberta to run in the Kenney government's "Senate Nominee Election."

Such Senate votes -- they're not really elections as electing senators is not a provincial prerogative -- are an unconstitutional bit of political theatre dating to 1980s when Preston Manning's Reform Party pushed the idea of an elected Senate as a way to make Canada more like the United States.

They happened in 1989, 1998, 2004 and 2012, with 10 "nominees" chosen. Conservative prime ministers Brian Mulroney and Stephen Harper eventually put five of those in the Senate. However, some of the winners, like journalist-ideologue Link Byfield, were too much even for Conservative prime ministers to appoint.

In addition to the whiny Confederation-is-unfair-to-the-richest-province agenda familiar to anyone even faintly aware of Alberta politics, Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government tied the latest meaningless Senate vote to the October 18 province-wide municipal election this year in hopes of firing up its base to get out and vote for more conservative town and city councillors.

Kinney, unlike most of the candidates who will soon be crawling out of the woodwork, will campaign on the grounds that Canada's Senate needs to be abolished, turned into Manning's dream. That is, a pale imitation of the U.S. Senate, which is packed with difficult-to-dislodge hard-line right-wingers often from low-population states determined to block any reform that might make the republic to the south more democratic.

Kinney, as political blogger Dave Cournoyer described him, is "a well-known online provocateur."

In other words, he is just what these fatuous elections have needed for a long time -- a genuinely progressive voice who has enough of a sense of humour to get up the noses of the UCP-affiliated candidates who will flock to the race.

Kinney will offer Albertans disgusted with the antics and incompetence of the Kenney government a way to express their disillusionment almost two years before they'll have an opportunity to vote against the UCP in a general election.

If nothing else, this would be therapeutic. Most likely, though, a victory by a candidate like Kinney would end this expensive and fatuous periodic charade by Conservative Alberta governments once and for all. After all, the scam works best if only Conservatives run, an obvious flaw that the provincial NDP was consistently too high minded and serious to exploit.

Only one candidate formally associated with any but the Reform, Conservative or fringe right-wing parties ever ran in any of the five Senate votes, a Liberal in 1989. A few independents have run from time to time, but their campaigns have failed to catch fire.

But that was then and this is now. An insurgent progressive campaign in 2021 offers the opportunity for Albertans to send a strong message to Kenney that they don't love him, his government, or the way they are mismanaging the province. Just because Kinney is running as an Independent doesn't mean New Democrats, Alberta Liberals, federal Liberals and others can't vote for him guiltlessly.

For those who think seriously about Canada's Senate, flawed by the undemocratic nature of its appointments, abolition is a more sensible way forward than the American model, intended by its 18th-century designers to be a sclerotic impediment to bringing an end to slavery. It has served admirably as a roadblock to American democratic reform for 232 years.

This ability to stall democracy to suit the wealthy and powerful is exactly what Manning and his acolytes had in mind when they first advocated what they called a Triple-E Senate -- for elected, equal and effective. Effective, that is, at preserving the power and privilege of the elite.

The Reform Party's election pitch was framed around the claim Canadian political institutions needed to be reformed to make Confederation fairer to Western Canada. But the Senate was a marquee policy for the Reform Party's successful broader campaign to halt the Progressive-Conservative drift toward more socially liberal policies such as abortion rights and multiculturalism.

That objective was eventually largely achieved, resulting in the hostile reverse takeover of the Canadian Progressive Conservatives by the Reform Party in 2003, creating the Republican-style party now known as the Conservative Party of Canada.

Kinney has shown an aptitude for reporting stories the UCP would prefer to be left uncovered. In February 2020, the UCP denied him entry to a government budget lockup on the grounds "your organization has been reviewed and determined to be an advocacy organization.

"As such, your request for media accreditation has been denied," he was brusquely told in a letter from government officials. "The media embargo is for members of the media only."

Notwithstanding Progress Alberta's shoestring budget, Kinney went to court and got an emergency injunction forcing the UCP to admit him to the lockup and awarding the organization $2,000 in costs.

That was an important victory for media rights and freedom of expression, especially in an era when many news organizations do not meet the definition of traditional media.

Progress Alberta's complaint argued in part that it was repeatedly targeted by Premier Kenney and the UCP, during the 2019 election campaign and after, "with false accusations that our group was a part of a conspiracy, working in league with American foundations, to sabotage Alberta's economy."

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 credit: David J. Climenhaga

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