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.

Snake eyes?

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!

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  1. Although I stopped referring to myself as a conservative a few years ago, I still recognize that a healthy democracy needs a strong centre-right party, and as such a stronger Alberta Party can only be good for Alberta. That it may ruin Kenney’s plans is just icing on the cake.

  2. Far right, social conservative, and neo-right heel-biters are wrecking moderate conservative parties everywhere. The notion that conservatism needs its surly extremists to succeed has driven real conservatives away, convincing the pipsqueaks they are successful lions. They think they’re on top of the mainstream when the Tory tide recedes and leaves them high-centred, mistaking the ebbing buoyancy for movement, and grounding as the zenith, the passing ships in deeper water appear peripherally no-count. Bravado from inside concentric rings of evaporites belies a profound insecurity, as self-assured as a frog in a pot coming to boil or self righteous as a caiman ignoring the sound of cracking mud.

    Kenney’s presumptuousness is more blinding than blind. To win power he needs to proselytize by myopia, to pretend social democracy is a hellish disaster despite the ubiquity of evidence to the contrary, and, most bizarrely of all, to attack Tory holists like an autoimmune disease. But as demagogue, Kenney knows how to play to more fundamental sentiments: the quintessential , Anglo-Saxmaniacal myth of an heroic age unjustly deprived, of fervent prayer in the circled lager, to overcome by divine destiny the savages outside the ringed wagons, and to claim—or mythologically reclaim—a righteous place in the sun. He envisions a quasi-Mormon state and substitutes communal religious anarchists of Alberta’s past, in its continental remoteness, for the latent schismatics of the Great Trek to Utah Territory. The ideals appeal to the Canadian equivalent of the American “Redoubter” movement.

    Given the substantive social changes in Alberta over the past few decades, it takes a certain kind of fear to gather a shrinking minority and convince them of the imperative of defence. The gambit is so obtuse, Kenney even alienates self-identifying conservatives.

    It’s one thing to be blind to Alberta’s increasing urban complexion, its growing ethnic diversity, and ascending Aboriginal polities. But how could Kenney be so blind to the easily figured likelihood that PC members who vocally opposed his crafty usurpation would gather themselves into a new entity that will likely frustrate his “united” cons’ chances of winning power? I guess one has to take his political education into account, and the fact that his teacher remains his mentor, himself bent, perhaps, on reclaiming a bygone heroic age he feels was unjustly deprived. The Harper-Con era was, after all, a decade long; perhaps Kenney, proud and loyal to a fault, still doesn’t appreciate the regime’s tepid, circumstantial and defaulted wins, its many Supreme Court reversals, and ultimate failure to achieve its basic agenda. Perhaps with such perspective his point of view regards small wins by underhanded means glorious triumphs. Perhaps he’ll march to oblivion undeterred. Or maybe he’ll be ordained bishop of a parochial mountain redoubt.

    Sooner than later, mainstream conservatives will figure out the sooner they cut the extremists loose, the sooner they won’t need their shrinking voting base.

  3. When you begin to unpack and drill down on the latest iterations of these various unite-the-right versions, you realize panic has actually set it.

    In trying to cope with the success of the NDP government, a Keystone Kops approach has manifest itself among the right. How else do you explain the attempted Alberta Party hijacking by Katherine O’Neill and former PC associates. Or, Derek Fildebrandt’s hard right libertarian-led charge to engage the unhinged. Add to that the Kenney-Jean leadership conundrum and all signs point to fear of another NDP mandate brought on by voters quite comfortable with the return of a stable, prudent centrist government currently provided by Rachel Notley and company. It appears panic is the new blue in Alberta these days.

    1. J. E. the Alberta NDP has increased spending and tried to buy votes at every turn and yet latest polls put the Premier’s approval rating in the range of 28-33% percent depending on the poll. I read an article the other day that stated for every dollar the price of oil averages below $55, 310 million is added to Alberta’s deficit! Oil is what, $42-43 today? My guess is that it is the Alberta NDP that is starting to panic.

      As for the article agreed with most of it except your assertion that the Alberta Party is a right of center party. I guess if you consider the NDP as a centrist party(which it certainly is not) then from your perspective the Alberta party is right of center.

  4. “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.” Like me in those halcyon days pre 2003.

    What Harper did was make me examine politics more closely than I ever did before. I finally discovered articles on neoliberalism that laid bare my struggles with Thatcherism which Ronnie Raygun copied, based on some damned economist’s theory. I was in Blighty studying in the early 1970s, and Maggie was already pulling off the hardarse schoolmarm gig, giving metaphorical six-of-the-best verbal canings to all the naughty male citizens who dared to disagree with her ancient viewpoint. Privatise the lot she said! And now British railways are an utter joke, the Post Office is half privatized and useless, councils “refresh” public housing with deathtrap cladding, and anybody who worked for a bank has become filthy rich on the backs of the serfs.

    So in light of my thoughts today, I might not have been a PC prior to 2000 if I’d understood what this business of privatization and trickle-down theory i.e. neoliberalism, shipping jobs overseas to make things of lower quality but at the same price to me, really meant. I could have been fooled for decades more, but the right got too greedy, kept spouting ever more nonsense, and I had to find out what the fuss was about. When I did, I did not like what I found.

    Now it’s up to the NDP to kick over Jack’s and Mulcair’s traces as secondhand neoliberal Blairites, or centrists as they would have it, and get back to basic policies for left of centre. Ditch airy-fairy LEAP manifestoes and get real.

    As for Alberta conservatives, I hope they squabble their way to irrelevance by disagreeing with each other for the forseeable future. With more time on his hands, Kenney could profitably join Weightwatchers.

    1. The last thing that you want to do if you have a lot of time on your hands is join Weightwatchers. The empty stretches of time between those inadequate meals dilates even more when you don’t have distractions. That said, commenting on Kenney’s amplitude is perhaps a bit unkind.
      Interesting that you found the Right more palatable in the 70s than now. I did too, and have a hard time forgiving myself for it now. However, you have to remember what the Left was like back then.

  5. It’s useful to remember that for the first decade of the Lougheed era there was a Social Credit opposition to the right of the PCs: the So-Creds achieved 41% of the popular vote in 1971 (25 seats), 18% in 1975 (4 seats), 20% in 1979 (4 seats) and were finally wiped off the political map in 1983 (1%, 0 seats). While Preston Manning was elected federally for the Reform Party in 1993, he had been heavily involved in the So-Creds and other right fringe entities in the seventies and eighties (and apparently up to today).

  6. There was always something fishy about “unite the right”. It seemed a bit too backroom, a bit to engineered. Yes, this time the members will vote on the plan before it is implemented, unlike the previous Prentice version, but in some ways that appears to be a rubber stamp to give legitimacy to the plans once again drafted in the backrooms by the conservative elite. Ultimately, it is up to the voters to deal with the issue of vote splitting not the leaders of parties and their cronies. If votes are being split, it says something about the weakness of the parties, something that unification will not necessarily fix.

    Voters also tend to be more moderate than party members. It is not a good sign PC members are already leaving because they find the direction their party is going in too extreme. The ones that are leaving seem to be very experienced and well connected and there may be enough of them to create a viable third conservative party.

    If in the end a large number of PCs instead switch support to the Alberta Party, then the United Conservative Party will just end up basically being the Wildrose Party with a new name, if it even happens. It may turn out to be a great deal of effort to accomplish little. However, that is what sometimes happens in politics sometimes when those on the fringe have great ideas that never quite resonate with the public. It is even more troubling in this case as Kenney is already having trouble getting his great idea to resonate with PC members.

  7. With so many parties on the center right threatening to fragment the vote next thing you know Jason Kenney is going to be demanding proportional repensentation.

    1. He could demand that, but it wouldn’t be to his advantage. Despite con media reports to the contrary, there are more young progressive people in Alberta than old white male rednecks.

      So, go ahead Kenney demand all you want. Then the NDP could make voting in the provincial election mandatory for all registered voters, then we’ll tally up and see how many Kenny supporters there really are. My guess is there aren’t more than a few hundred at most.

    2. I’d said as much about Kelley Leitch’s appeal to extremists in the CPC. Why, when the party’s future depended so obviously on shaking the extremists loose, did Kelley Leitch work so hard against the moderates, especially when she hadn’t a chance of winning?

      It would make sense if she expected proportional representation to be implemented because, as the strongest spokesman for the farthest right faction within the CPC, she would be the prime candidate for a separate far right party that would stand a chance of winning a seat or two in a pro-rep contest.

      The notion that conservatives need extremists votes to succeed should have been put to bed by now, but since it hasn’t, many mainstream conservatives now vote for other parties, Liberal, NDP, Green or Bloc. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more extremists nominally conservative parties tolerate, the more their shrinking memberships need their votes.

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