UCP MLA Drew Barnes has made headlines in recent months for going against his party line, from pushing for an expedited equalization referendum to arguing Alberta would be less landlocked as an independent entity.
Party discipline tends to be strong in Canadian politics — but Barnes, now in his third term, says his contrarian positions haven’t caused him any trouble, and political analysts say there might be a reason for that.
“I’m not worried at all about being expelled,” Barnes told CBC West of Centre host Kathleen Petty this week.
“I’m clearly relaying a message, talking about the values and ideas that Albertans everywhere are talking about.”
In June, Barnes shocked at least one of his fellow members of the province’s so-called “fair deal” panel when he wrote an open letter saying the panel’s findings didn’t go far enough. He’s since pushed for communications relating to the panel to be released.
He’s also written guest columns for the Western Standard, calling for Alberta to vote on independence if it can’t achieve a satisfactory new constitutional arrangement with Ottawa and arguing that Alberta would be less landlocked if it were a nation and not a province.
Barnes declined to say outright whether he considers himself a separatist, arguing instead that the province needs to look at all of its options.
“In plain language I think Alberta should be the freest and most prosperous place in North America,” he said.
“If that’s within Canada, that’s great, I certainly am a Canadian. If that has to be not within Canada that’s what it has to be.”
Kelly Cryderman, who covers politics for the Globe and Mail, says she thinks keeping Barnes close is a sound strategy for the premier.
“I do think it’s important to Jason Kenney that he is portrayed as a leader that allows his MLAs to speak out, to have their own viewpoint,” she said.
“Obviously he does represent the viewpoint of some in the UCP tent and some of the strongest backers of Jason Kenney, and Jason Kenney does not want that to change.”
Journalist and political commentator Graham Thomson said he wonders if Barnes is getting any direction from the party regarding his opposing views.
“I really do get the impression that he sincerely is saying no, I’m doing my own thing,” he said.
Barnes said he wouldn’t consider himself a rebel for his dissenting opinions.
“I’m elected, I am paid by the taxpayers of Alberta to speak on behalf of my constituents, and I am absolutely going to do that,” he said.
Kenney has spoken out against separation in the past, calling it irrational.
But Thomson also said catering to any level of separatist sentiment, even by allowing Barnes to share his views unchecked, can be a tricky balance.
“The problem for Kenney could be if this fringe starts to get any bigger and starts to take votes away from the UCP.”
An Abacus Data poll in July found that only seven per cent of Canadians think Wexit is a good idea. One-in-five Albertans are in favour, while roughly half called it “a terrible idea.”
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