PHOTOS: Jason Kenney, as he may see himself, gets ready to roll the unite-the-right dice. Actual Alberta conservative politicians may not appear exactly as illustrated. (Photo: Publicity shot for Sky Full of Moon, 1952.) Below: The real Mr. Kenney, plus the real Katherine O’Neill, Greg Clark and Stephen Mandel.
Jason Kenney rolled the dice, but I’d bet he didn’t expect to inspire the creation of a third conservative party in Alberta.
Yet with yesterday’s gathering of self-identifying centrist conservatives in Red Deer and their vote to try to create under the standard of the Alberta Party an alternative to Mr. Kenney’s harsh brand of social conservatism, that seems to be what’s happening here in what our license plates still call Wild Rose Country as we move into Year Three of the NDP Era … however long it turns out to be.
Mr. Kenney’s plan – or at least that of the powerful movement-conservatives who backed and bankrolled him, men like former prime minister Stephen Harper and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning – was to repeat in Alberta the hostile reverse takeover of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada by Mr. Manning’s followers in the early Naughts.
The spawn of that strategy was called the Conservative Party of Canada, but it was Mr. Manning’s Reform Party of Canada in all but name.
When the CPC formed the government under Mr. Harper, the progressive wing of the party had been all but purged, and the window of acceptable political and economic policy formation had been moved accordingly to the right – to the discomfort of the majority of middle-of-the-road Canadian voters, including many who thought of themselves as conservative.
The election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberals in Ottawa in 2015 after a decade of Mr. Harper’s unite-the-right government showed what eventually happens when such strategies unravel.
The Alberta gamble personified by Mr. Kenney was always that the unexpected election of an NDP government here in Alberta in 2015 could be exploited to create a similar phenomenon – not just returning the province to conservative rule, but to a much harder edged, more ideological version than we had seen before.
Betting NDP Premier Rachel Notley’s post-election support was a mile wide but an inch deep, Mr. Kenney’s backers on the ideological market-fundamentalist right concluded that moderate voters could be persuaded to support a single Conservative-labelled party even if it had moved farther to the right than their comfort level.
Ideological extremists on the right had always been frustrated by the prevailing wisdom in Alberta PC circles that a welcoming big tent and middle-of-the-road policy approach was the best route to long-term success.
Never mind that strategy seemed to work pretty well, the ideological extremists were always angered by the restraints leaders like dynastic founder Peter Lougheed put on their ambitions to impose their most radical economic and ideological experiments on the oil-rich province.
But their creation of the Wildrose Party after premier Ed Stelmach’s flirtation with fair royalty rates proved to be a dangerous way to move political discourse to the right. It encouraged Mr. Stelmach to leave politics – if he had remained, he might still be premier today. That in turn led to the catastrophic premiership of Alison Redford, followed by the false Tory dawn of Jim Prentice and the unanticipated rise of Ms. Notley and the NDP.
The unite-the-right scheme as imagined by Mr. Kenney beckoned: a new Conservative party along the lines of Mr. Manning’s Reform, with Mr. Kenney in the role of prime minister Harper, strongly supported by the movement’s social conservative wing while Alberta’s inclusive “Red Tories” were neutralized or purged.
As with Mr. Manning’s successful use of the Reform Party to take over and subsume the federal Tories, Mr. Kenney’s plan would see the Wildrose Party taken over by the PCs, but the party that emerged, while called conservative, would be more Wildrose than PC.
But who among Mr. Kenney’s backers would have imagined that disaffected Big Tent Alberta PCs – real conservatives, it could be argued, in a truer sense of that word – would be so offended by their old party’s new leader’s personality and hard-ball tactics they would contemplate en masse adopting a new political home?
Yet that is what seems to have happened in Red Deer this weekend.
Leastways, when 300 or so centrist conservatives, meeting under the umbrella of a new Political Action Committee called Alberta Together, gathered in the Central Alberta city to talk “uniting the centre,” they voted about 80 per cent to try to use the Alberta Party as their route back to power.
For a time a vehicle for dissatisfied Alberta Liberals frustrated by their party’s perpetually damaged brand, who would have thought the Alberta Party might one day re-emerge as the home from home for frustrated Alberta conservatives?
Katherine O’Neill, the former PC Party president who left after Mr. Kenney’s ascension in mid-March and is now leader of Alberta Together, told the CBC the meeting was called to gauge interest in uniting centrist conservatives, but it will be up to the parties to figure out how to do it.
But Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark got a standing ovation when he called on participants to use his party as the vessel for their political voyage. “We can build something from the ground up on a foundation that’s already in place,” he said.
Former Edmonton mayor and PC cabinet minister Stephen Mandel is said to have been busily raising money and rallying troops for Alberta Together.
What effect this will have on the Wildrose-PC unification vote is unclear, but interesting to speculate upon. Wildrose members are scheduled to vote on July 22. Yesterday, the PC Party sent members an email saying they have extended the voting period, originally scheduled for the same day, from July 20 to 22.
Up to now, propelled by the dream of an easy victory over the NDP, a positive vote for union has seemed like a slam-dunk. Sufficient moderate Tories who might have opposed union on the PC side have been scattered to the winds by Mr. Kenney’s radicals. And enough Wildrosers, distrustful of old Tories perhaps, have been persuaded that a united right-wing party would win automatically and Mr. Kenney was basically one of them anyway.
Now, though, with the potential rise of another party in the centre offering conservatism with a human face, one wonders if this will change their political calculus, making them doubt the utility of voting for union with a still-distrusted former foe?
I wouldn’t be so bold as to predict one outcome or another, but it seems one possible result of the latest development is that Alberta will emerge at the end of this process with three conservative parties, rather than one!