ST. ALBERT, Alberta
Every few years, Michael Cooper seems to pop onto the national news radar. The first time, it was as a political oddity, a sort of human-interest story with an edge.
The story appeared under a headline in the National Post that read, “Not your average high school senior: ‘Blood sport’ of politics has lured Michael Cooper most of his 18 years.”
That was 2002. Now it’s 2014 and Mr. Cooper is neither a high school student nor an 18-year-old any more. He’s a 30-year-old lawyer who appears to harbour deeply conservative views — although he has successfully kept discussion of what he thinks, particularly about social conservative issues such as LGBTQ rights and reproductive rights, well off the radar.
Now he may be about the join the big-time, as the Harper Conservative Party’s response to rebel MP Brent Rathgeber here in the St. Albert-Edmonton riding, which for the moment is still known as Edmonton-St. Albert. Count on it that the Tories will pour a lot of money and effort into winning this constituency, both to keep their Alberta heartland in ideologically reliable hands and to send a message to others in their ranks who, like Rathgeber, may be harbouring mutinous sentiments.
So what’s on the record about Cooper’s beliefs, other than what he chooses to tell us in his own campaign materials? Precious little — and most of that is not on Google or other Internet search engines, so I can’t provide you with web links for the three stories noted below. You’ll have to look them up yourself on a newspaper database.
The most colourful was the April 6, 2002, National Post story by political writer Paul Wells, the headline from which was noted above.
In it, Wells observed of the young politician that “it is difficult to call him ‘Mister’ because he just turned 18 and he’s rail-thin and he looks like he’d float away on a stiff breeze.” However, Wells observed, Cooper was also the an Alberta member of the Canadian Alliance party’s “powerful” national council, the youngest member of the party’s elected national governing body. He had joined the provincial Progressive Conservative Party at 14, the age most Alberta kids are thinking about getting their first learner’s driving permit.
Cooper remained in the PC party, by the way, when many on the party’s right were abandoning ship for the Wildrose Party — a bit of loyalty that did him no harm when it came time to collect endorsements for his nomination from the local PC grandees.
His still-unchanged campaign website lists 15 endorsements from prominent conservatives, including the city’s two PC MLAs and the PC MLA for the Edmonton portion of the federal riding, a former St. Albert mayor, a former councillor, two former MLAs and sundry out-of-towners including Pierre Poilievre, Stephen Harper’s intemperate and extremist “democratic reform” minister, and John Carpay, who has been prominent for many years in anti-union Astro-Turf groups.
Endorsements in hand, Cooper defeated Ryan Hastman for the nomination with apparent ease late last month. Hastman was the only Alberta Conservative candidate to lose in the 2011 federal general election, defeated by New Democrat Linda Duncan in Edmonton-Strathcona.
In his 2002 story, Wells praised Cooper as an able speaker — with a telling caveat of sorts: “He speaks in long, grammatically perfect sentences with spooky intensity, his Adam’s apple bouncing up and down behind his tightly-knotted tie.”
Cooper is said (by none other than prime ministerial aspirant Jason Kenney, another former political child star from Alberta) to be “an encyclopedia of political trivia.”
Well, Cooper still looks as if he could float away on a breeze, and most of the time his tie remains tightly knotted, although none of the rest of this should surprise us about an intelligent young aspiring politician. But what does he believe? That, after all, is the knowledge voters need to know what he would do in power
There are only a few hints, other than from some of the company he keeps. From Wells’s story:
Cooper loves politics because “it’s a true blood sport.” That could be a comment on how he would conduct himself in office, or just a comment on the entertainment value of politics. (Full disclosure: I feel the same way, for much the same reasons. Not only that, but one of the former city councillors who endorsed Cooper once endorsed me too. Go figure! Maybe there was a misunderstanding.)
“He names Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney as his models” — but only as his oratorical models, mind. The writer doesn’t tell us if this point was added as a careful afterthought, although he did quote Cooper saying he didn’t like Mulroney’s politics.
Wells, unhelpfully, provided us with no hint of why this might be. I am presuming, from the auguries, it’s because the former Canadian prime minister was a little too far to the left for Cooper’s taste, too much of a “wet,” as Thatcher would have put it.
Cooper was an enthusiastic supporter of Stockwell Day in the 2002 Alliance leadership election, but made the switch to the side of winner Stephen Harper happily enough once the votes had been counted.
In Cooper’s 2002 campaign for party office, Wells wrote, he “ran on a platform of ‘no truck or trade with the Tories’ but professes no great concern at the fitful negotiations between his party and the Progressive Conservatives.” Well, people, that was then and this is now, and nowadays Tory is just a convenient four-letter word for use by headline writers, which no longer means what it used to.
A few days earlier, on April 2, 2002, the Edmonton Journal’s Larry Johnsrude also profiled Cooper — providing us with another hint of what he really believes, or, at least, what he really believed when he was 18. The headline: “No to Joe’ is the mantra of Alliance’s youngest voice.”
The headline encapsulated Johnsrude’s only insight into Cooper’s place in the political spectrum: “He wants nothing to do with ‘Red Tories’ like Joe Clark,” he wrote. “Although he’s been a member of the provincial Conservative party since he was 14, the self-described ‘Blue Tory’ wants nothing to do with federal Conservative Leader Joe Clark.”
“I was elected on a fundamental principle of having no truck or trade with Joe Clark’s Red Tories,” the reporter quoted Cooper saying.
In 2003, Cooper got into hot water — but seemingly managed to scramble out of it without being burned too badly — when controversy erupted over his dual role as the agent for a candidate seeking the Alliance nomination in Calgary-Centre and as a member of the party’s national council. For background on this situation, readers can look for Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid’s account of the brouhaha.
Nowadays, Cooper is very careful with what he has to say about his own views. Revelations during his nomination campaign were almost non-existent — but for the fact he supports Premier Jim Prentice’s and Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s calls for pipelines to all points of the compass. “Canada’s future economic prosperity is dependent on being able to transport and sell Alberta oil and gas,” he said in a nomination campaign news release.
His nomination campaign’s online policy page lists support for “pro-business, pro-growth policies, including reductions in personal, business and capital gains taxes,” as well as Texas style “three strikes and you’re out laws,” among the usual anodyne platitudes. About the only really personal detail is that he’s a member of the Knights of Columbus.
Not much else is on the record and, it seems to me at least, that residents of this riding should be asking questions about Cooper’s views on many issues, particularly his level of support for policies demanded by social conservatives.
Meanwhile, as Cooper was being chosen by local Conservatives to challenge Rathgeber, the national media seems to have adopted the Independent MP and former Conservative as a sort of mascot on the sensible journalistic principle that where you have conflict, you have a good story.
And, indeed, as long as Rathgeber continues with his determination to seek re-election as an Independent, that conflict is guaranteed.
Alas, from a resident’s perspective, Rathgeber is more interested in his hobbyhorses, like dismantling the CBC, than the issues that truly affect local citizens.
Cooper seems to be cut from a similar piece of cloth. And his lack of clarity on his social conservative views certainly requires illumination.
Progressive St. Albertans should vote for neither man.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.