Here we go again: Opacity not transparency characterizes Alberta’s right-wing merger talks

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PHOTOS: Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean and Progressive Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney uncomfortably shake hands in this obviously staged photo in what appears to be Mr. Jean’s office. (Wildrose Party photo.) Below: Tanis Fiss, chair of the insider committee working behind closed doors to unite the two parties (from LinkedIn), and Preston Manning of his eponymous Manning Centre.

Truer words were never spoken: A year ago, Opposition Leader Brian Jean called the secret talks that led to the December 2014 attempt to merge the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties a “misguided attempt to shortcut deliberate, meaningful, and personal conversations between party members.”

“It was a disastrous elite-driven top-down ‘unification’ attempt by MLAs that ultimately led to the NDP majority,” Mr. Jean then said.

“Please do not allow the allure of a short cut, presented by outsiders, to derail what must be a transparent, grassroots-driven process,” he begged his supporters.

The elite outsiders Mr. Jean referred to in his cogent critique of the 2014 machinations that led to the bizarre decision to essentially shut down the Opposition party in the Legislature and try to merge it with the government were Preston Manning and the crowd of powerful, well-heeled conservative insiders he fronts for through his eponymous Manning Centre in Calgary.

The immediate consequences Mr. Jean referenced were the public revulsion with the back-room scheme and the rejection of the new partly united PC caucus led by premier Jim Prentice, by then including Danielle Smith, who days before had been the Wildrose Opposition leader in the House, and her eight turncoat MLAs.

The behind-the-scenes actors who perpetrated this astonishingly unsuccessful  “unite-the-right” effort are the ones we used to know by the shorthand “Tory Old Boys,” although nowadays, they are not all Tories, and they are not quite all boys.

If their efforts didn’t lead to the election of the NDP under Premier Rachel Notley on May 5, 2015 – there were other factors, of course, including Ms. Notley’s remarkable talent as a politician – they were certainly a major contributing factor.

The “disastrous” unity bid, it must be remembered, also revived Mr. Jean’s political career. Not long out of federal politics, supposedly to spend more time with his grandchildren, he gathered up the rattled Wildrose remnants and made them a viable party again – although, after the election that brought the NDP to power, he was certainly stuck with the B-Team for a caucus.

To give them their due, most of the Wildrosers in the Legislature have been pretty consistent in their support for the idea of a unified right as well as their insistence the process that leads to it must be transparent and member driven.

But that was then and this is now.

Now Mr. Jean is taking part in cloistered talks with PC Leader Jason Kenney, the cabinet lieutenant to Tory prime minister Stephen Harper whose candidacy was backed by the same old insider/outsider elite. Inside the conservative movement, that is, while outside the supposedly more populist Wildrose Party.

Mr. Manning may not be the public face of the unite-the-right effort any more, but there is plenty of evidence he continues to lurk in the background.

The headline in the ever-loyal Calgary Herald on Friday? “Wildrose, Tories remain tight-lipped as unification talks progress.”

The promised grassroots involvement, especially on the populist, Wildrose side? No sign of it.

Just a terse press release, issued by both parties and obediently reprinted by Postmedia, stating that “members” (viz., insiders, not necessarily holding official party office) have met five times and were about to meet again on Friday.

The meetings were being chaired by one Tanis Fiss – who according to her LinkedIn profile is a former communications director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Fraser Institute apparatchik – who the release said “has been an integral part of moving our discussions forward.” This is interesting, although not particularly helpful.

The statement concluded: “While progress has been made, there still remains much to discuss. As always, we are committed to accountability to the respective memberships of both parties. We are confident we will be able to report back to members of both parties in the weeks to come.”

When the process is finished – probably sooner than later, because Mr. Jean’s caucus is divided on this issue and he is under tremendous pressure to play ball with Mr. Kenney – members of both parties will be presented with a fait accompli and instructed to endorse it.

A few Wildrosers may grumble, but the prospect of a return to the Good Old Days with Tory Old Boys at the tiller will keep most of them in line. Many of the Red Tories on the PC side will already have drifted away, perhaps to former Edmonton mayor and Prentice Era cabinet minister Stephen Mandel’s “unite-the-centre” effort, a few even to the NDP.

But have no doubt, while the Opposition Wildrose Party is the more viable of Alberta’s two major conservative parties at this moment, this train is being driven by Jason Kenney and the cabal of insiders now running the PC Party.

And while Mr. Kenney, in turn, may have the title of Engineer and permission to ride in front of the coal car where the air is fresher, you can count on it that the likes of Messrs. Manning and Harper are the conductors – in other words, the fellows with the gold pocket watches who really run the train.

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Categories Alberta Politics