PHOTOS: Veteran Conservative Lee Richardson with Alberta premier Alison Redford, who he served as principal secretary. Below: Prime minister John Diefenbaker, who Mr. Richardson served as executive assistant, and Alberta premier Peter Lougheed, for whom he was chief of staff.

Understanding history requires a long view, and the picture that is emerging from the Reform Party upheaval, which began with that party’s formation by Preston Manning almost 30 years ago, is of a movement that has failed in its fundamental goals of eliminating the Liberal Party of Canada and replacing it with a U.S.-style two-party system that would push Canadian political discourse ever further to the right.

Mr. Manning founded the Reform Party in the fall of 1987, and it has been with us ever since – although it was later known as the Canadian Alliance and, after its reverse hostile takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 2003, as the Conservative Party of Canada.

That final name change signalled the direction its creators hoped to take Canadian conservatism – away from any suggestion of progressiveness, in the ordinary centrist political meaning of that term.

In that they have largely succeeded. There are virtually no progressive conservatives left now in the party’s ranks.

The latest barometric reading of the state of Canadian conservatism is the report Tuesday that veteran Alberta Conservative politician Lee Richardson is seriously considering running in former prime minister Stephen Harper’s Calgary Heritage riding … as a Liberal.

Mr. Richardson has been around in Conservative circles for what seems like forever. As a young man, he served John Diefenbaker as executive assistant in Ottawa and Peter Lougheed as chief of staff in Edmonton. He was first elected to Parliament as the Progressive Conservative MP for Calgary Southeast in 1988 – a year after Mr. Manning turned the switch to deliver the first electrical charge to the bolts on the Reform Party’s neck. He was defeated in the 1993 election by Reform’s Jan Brown.

In 2004, however, Mr. Richardson returned to federal politics, winning election as a CPC MP in Calgary Centre, where he was re-elected in 2008 and 2011. He resigned from Parliament in 2012, saying in his farewell speech that “we are all Canadians and we all love our country. We would all … do well to remember that and leave the partisan furies at the water’s edge.”

Well, good luck with that! He was another Red Tory pushed aside in the Stephen Harper imperium, which was the flowering of the movement started by Mr. Manning.

Mr. Richardson didn’t exactly quit politics in 2012, though. He resigned from Parliament to take up duties as then PC premier Alison Redford’s principal secretary. Alas for him, and for the provincial PC dynasty, the bloom was soon off that particular wild rose, and when Ms. Redford was forced by her own party to resign in March 2014, Mr. Richardson departed the scene as well.

In 2015, he sought the federal Conservative nomination in Calgary Rocky Ridge, but, having successfully skidded him, there was no way Harper’s party, dominated by the ideology of market fundamentalism, was going to readmit an old progressive to its cadres. He failed to get the nomination, no doubt to Mr. Harper’s satisfaction.

Now he has advised the media he will seek the Liberal nomination in Mr. Harper’s riding – which, if he gets it and manages to win the by-election there too, would deliver a fitting riposte to the former PM.

Mr. Richardson told a Toronto Star reporter he understands he’ll be leaving old Conservative friends behind by trying this. “I may lose some friends on the Reform Party side, I doubt I would lose friends on the Progressive Conservative side.”

But he’s willing to make the effort because he believes Albertans deserve more representation in Ottawa, he said to the Calgary Herald’s political columnist, Don Braid. “We do need to have Alberta’s voice heard, and constantly, in the federal caucus. That would be my role.”

What Mr. Richardson didn’t quite say was the profound political truth that dares not speak its name: that the only way for Albertans to do that in the foreseeable future is by electing Liberals, who appear to be Canada’s natural governing party once again because the Conservatives, having all but purged their centrist elements, have become too extreme for most Canadian voters.

The Conservative Party – long pushed to the right by ideologues like Messrs. Manning and Harper, and lovin’ it – can’t easily change back to what it once was. Pragmatic people on the centre right just aren’t welcome there any more and are unlikely ever to be welcome.

Although it can take credit for Canada’s dark decade under Mr. Harper, this is the most significant achievement of the Reform Revolution three decades after it started and, in the long run, it will finish the job of returning the CPC to a far-right rump based in a few rural corners of Western Canada – little more than Social Credit on steroids.

This should serve as a warning to Alberta provincial conservatives pondering a Manning-style takeover and merger of their two parties as the only way to defeat the NDP – although it’s unlikely it will do so.

None of this, of course, guarantees Mr. Richardson will win in Calgary Heritage – either the Liberal nomination or the by-election, whenever it takes place.

But the very fact he is prepared to contemplate such a move after such a long and successful career in Tory ranks should tell you which way this wind is blowing.

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  1. Mr. Richardson was always an effective Member of Parliament regardless of his party colours. I used to be invited to his annual Christmas parties for friends, volunteers, and supporters (I fell into the friends category because I am a blatant socialist but I worked with him on topics of mutual concern because I was also a public servant). His predecessor as Conservative MP is Calgary Centre was Harvey Andre, another very effective MP. The Harper house is crumbling. It was the creation of a mega-maniac – is that a word? Harper was a powerful personality and he managed to get control of the country for too many years. Fortunately he was not good at succession planning. Absent his dynamism and drive, the “Conservative” Party is history. No tears here. I comprehend, along with Mr. Richardson, that party labels are transitory phenomena. I worked as the executive assistant to a Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament in 1979-80, during the Clark government. At the time, I lived in Nova Scotia, which was at the time a two-party state. Then I moved to Alberta and went back to my socialist roots. People told me “You will never elect a New Democrat in Calgary.” 1986 provincial election, New Democrat Bob Hawkesworth beat the Conservative candidate (a guy named Jim Prentice, remember him) in Calgary Mountain View. Today we have an NDP government in Alberta. It is a government that cares about people and understands basic economics. If you look at the record, NDP governments have the best record of balanced budgets – mainstream media and their corporate owners don’t acknowledge that FACT. So I wish Mr. Richardson the best of luck – he may find that the competition for the Liberal nomination is rather intense. There are a bunch of young Liberals in Calgary who want to be part of the Trudeau government. All is fair in love and war and politics. BTW, Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all the discerning people who are regular readers of Mr. Climenhaga’s posts.

  2. I only hope that David is correct, and Liberal feels like a more comfortable fit for Mr. Richardson than Conservative does, as opposed to Chris’ suggestion that Liberal is the only way he can get elected.

    I would also reiterate Eric’s concluding comment; Merry Christmas David and everyone.

  3. Sadly, the Conservative Party of Canada lost it’s way post amalgamation. Many members have reluctantly left the party, don’t vote, and don’t contribute. Yes, others have joined but they have moved the Party away from it’s roots towards the Mannings and the Harpers of the world. People who shun science, intellectual discussion,respect and tolerance of other faiths and creeds. What it means for the average voter like me is that I no longer have a real alternative at the federal level. It ceased being about ‘the west wants in’ many years ago. Now it is about our gang, our beliefs and to heck with everyone else.

    I can well understand MR Richardson’s actions. I have no doubt that privately he has former colleagues and supporters wishing him well and volunteering their time and resources to assist him.

  4. Not sure about “mega-maniac”, but megalomaniac truly fits Harper like a glove. That’s why the best way for Harper to lose wasn’t just a loss to a Liberal, but a Liberal made Trudeau.

  5. re: ‘replacing it with a U.S.-style two-party system that would push Canadian political discourse ever further to the right.’

    A bit more description of that agenda at the 2005 piece at the link below.

    If the AB Lib’s don’t take seats in 2019, then AB might yet end up where Ernest and Preston desired.

    Also, the article made me think of the interesting parallel of Belinda Stronach leaving the Con’s, to go Liberal, and Sandra Jansen going to the NDP, when the federal Con’s ditched progressiveness entirely.

    ‘Thirty-eight years ago, Ernest Manning, then the almost-permanent premier of Alberta, published a slim book titled Political Realignment: A Challenge to Canadians, in which he argued that our democracy could work only if Canadians had a clear choice between two principled parties with clear and distinct programs, Social Conservatives on the right, Humanitarian Socialists on the left.

    “Social conservative” is now a recognized term in politics. “Humanitarian socialist” is outdated, as is Mr. Manning’s understanding of socialism. Almost nobody now calls himself or herself a socialist, and social democrat probably best describes what Mr. Manning intended.

    He thought the Progressive Conservatives of the day could probably make the shift to the social conservatives he proposed. If they didn’t (or wouldn’t), it would be necessary to launch a new conservative party. … So a new party had to be invented, and Preston Manning, son of Ernest, launched the Reform Party.

    Reform was just what the elder Manning had prescribed, a party emphasizing fiscal conservatism and social values derived from the teaching of Christian evangelists.’

    History repeats in AB, I guess.

    1. One problem with the article from Globe and Mail is it assumes at the time it was written that Quebec would support the Bloc for the foreseeable future. In fact the odds are rising significantly that the Liberals might very well sweep Quebec next time around in a way they have not done so since Trudeau Sr.

      Also in British Columbia in particular there is a strong case to be made that the Manning vision has actually been going backwards since Bill Vander Zalm’s flameout of the Socreds. Yes I know many say that the BC Liberals are just Socred retreads but I still think a strong case can be made that the BC Liberals are a fundamentally different party from the old BC Socreds much as the Alberta PC’s were a fundamentally different party from the old Manning Alberta Socreds. Many of the “old” BC Liberal people like Gordon Wilson from back in the days when the BC Liberals were a minor party have returned to fold post Gordon Campbell for example.

  6. I would also add that I wouldn’t dare want to predict that 30 years from now the NDP will the governing party of Alberta in power continuously from the present day. However, I don’t think it would be right to say it “couldn’t” happen either. There is a long tradition of one party domination of government in Alberta and I don’t think there as any evidence to say conclusively couldn’t happen again no matter how much more mature of a jurisdiction Alberta seems. Even though Lougheed PC’s took an election cycle or two to really become dominant. I in fact think the Jansen floor crossing is strong evidence towards the general desire of Albertans to be in the “governing party” over ideology and the fact that Notley welcomed Jansen in with open arms against the NDP traditional view of floor crossing shows that Notley at some level sees the AB NDP as a much more “big tent” Lougheed PC style party than most NDP parties traditionally see themselves.

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