Kenney’s Alternative Facts: When Party Leaders use Populist Tactics to Mobilize Voters

by Victoria de Jong

On December 29, Jason Kenney, newly-minted leader of the United Conservative Party, composed a tweet that captured the attention of supporters, opponents, and #ableg spectators alike. In the tweet, he claimed that Alberta’s population is on the decline and that 10,000 businesses have gone bankrupt in the past two years. As of press time, this tweet has garnered 610 likes, 459 retweets, and 226 replies, sparking a larger discussion about Mr. Kenney’s loose relationship with facts.
Although Twitter users and media organizations alike are eager to latch on to the increasingly polarizing statements the UCP has been making, there is little coverage on how much of the “facts” Kenney stated in that tweet – and others like it – was false. Alberta’s population has never decreased since it joined confederation, and interprovincial migration (which Kenney later argued was what he had meant to say) did increase in the 3rd quarter of 2017 after two years of negative interprovincial population growth. Alberta also sees around 100 business bankruptcies per year — a far cry from Kenney’s 10,000 bankruptcies claim. His statement on unemployment is accurate, but he neglects to mention the fact that unemployment is currently the lowest it’s been since 2015, when the NDP were elected in Alberta.

A scroll through Kenney’s Twitter feed presents a gloomy image of an economically crippled province burdened by New Democrat policies and regulations, for which the UCP is the sole, Christ-like saviour. If you were to look at the leaked UCP draft policy declaration, however, you would see a much less polarizing display of conservatism. It is full of measured, small-c conservative remarks that would be expected from the former Progressive Conservative party. It’s a set of statements that includes fiscal restraint and lower taxes combined with value statements that espouse Progressive Conservative positions on the environment, indigenous issues, and democratization of government processes – no progressive would disagree on the UCP’s position that addiction, for example, ought to be treated as a public health issue instead of a criminal one. This policy document is in stark contradiction to what Kenney and his UCP MLAs and staff promote on Twitter.

The Alberta NDP has, to a certain extent, played with hyperbolic comments as well. In October of last year, Catholic school superintendents drafted a proposed new sex education curriculum, which faced harsh criticism from the provinces’ social progressives. Notley staunchly rejected the document, vowing that “under no circumstances will we enforce or condone a sexual health curriculum that normalizes an absence of consent”. In fact, the proposed curriculum did include consent as an important aspect of sexual encounters, but included the caveat that the Catholic threshold for sex includes other moral issues. Considering the Catholic school system’s troubling history with consent, it’s certainly fair for a progressive party to criticize the vague language in their proposal, but Notley did misrepresent the language of the actual curriculum proposal – a move that was criticized by UCP supporters much in the same way that Jason Kenney’s tweets have been lambasted by the left.

Although Kenney and the UCP stretch the truth more frequently than Notley and the Alberta NDP, the parties are similar in that they use hyperbolic messaging to appeal to their base of supporters. Appealing to the emotions of their base is a political tactic that exists regardless of party; the Alberta NDP appeals to their progressive, female, pro-science supporters by unequivocally supporting consent-based sex education, while the UCP appeals to the traditional, fiscally conservative parts of their base by presenting alarming statistics as alleged proof of a socialist takeover in the former one-party province of Alberta. The two parties share other similarities, too: as quasi-populist parties, they both claim to be pro-grassroots and anti-elite, with the Alberta NDP opposing big business interests and the UCP opposing academic and political elitism. They also try to appeal to the working class, albeit in different ways: the Alberta NDP pushes employment legislation and raises the minimum wage, while the UCP says they will lower personal and business taxes to protect small businesses owners and by extension, small business employees.

Parties will also misrepresent facts to raise the stakes of the election. In using populist tactics to rally the base, parties will exaggerate the importance of their party winning and the dangers of allowing the other party to govern. By raising the stakes, parties can push their supporters to donate more money to crucial campaigns, and also increase their base’s voter turnout. There’s no real downside to spreading hyperbolic messaging; the only criticism a party would receive is from people who wouldn’t support them to begin with.

Parties will always present information that benefits them, especially in the year leading up to an election. With an election likely being called in May of 2019, voters will have to keep a critical eye out for misinformation being spread by politicians of all stripes. That being said, if the economy continues on its upward trajectory for the next year, expect the most manipulation of facts from the UCP – a party with nothing to lose and a province to gain, I wouldn’t trust them to deliver unbiased fact to the electorate.

In a perfect world, honesty and integrity would be the most valued qualities of potential politicians. No party or individual will ever be a pure embodiment of those values – when the goal is to win an election, parties will compromise on their values in favour of populist tactics of manipulation. But when the choice is between a party that occasionally hyperbolizes and another that blatantly misrepresents facts, I would hope that voters would choose the less dangerous option when they head to the ballot box in 2019.

Banner photography provided by Caitlin Hart.

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