By Trevor Busch
It wasn’t really a big surprise.
Over the weekend, the assembled membership of the once-feared and powerful Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta chose long-time former federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney as their new leader — a leader who has made no bones about the fact that he plans to dissolve the party in favour of a united conservative entity as a challenge to the Notley NDP in 2019.
And we probably all know who he has in mind to lead that united effort, and it most assuredly isn’t the current scion of the Wildrose Party, Brian Jean.
It will likely mean the end for a political movement — and I do mean movement — that was almost built from the ground up by former Premier Peter Lougheed and his grassroots supporters. When Lougheed sent the former Social Credit government packing back in the free-wheeling days of 1971, he probably had no idea that he would be the first to preside over a political dynasty that would last 44 years through 13 elections. In politics, that’s what is known as unprecedented staying power.
And now, for all intents and purposes, it’s all over but the crying. Because while unprecedented staying power has always been a hallmark of Alberta politics, when parties do fall, they tend to fall hard.
Although it might be difficult for some people to believe, when the province was created in 1905, Alberta had a Liberal government, which would rule for 16 years through four elections before falling to the United Farmers of Alberta. In the case of at least two of the dynasties that followed it (and perhaps now three), the Alberta Liberal Party has out-survived many of its competitors over the decades.
The United Farmers of Alberta —they were much more than just a farm and ranch supply store back then — would rule from 1921 until 1935, when they were eviscerated at the polls by the boyish radio evangelist William “Bible Bill” Aberhart.
The United Farmers would never present a threat to Alberta politics again. In fact, they suffered the worst defeat in the history of provincial politics in Canada, not retaining a single seat in the house.
Social Credit, once it had moved away from its more quirky policies, settled in for a long honeymoon with Alberta voters that lasted 36 years through 10 elections. Like the United Farmers before them, they rarely posed a political threat after their 1971 defeat, and less than 10 years later its last elected member would step into the political dustbin of history in the early 1980s.
Now, true to form, the Progressive Conservatives appear ready to follow suit.
Ironically, their dynasty would last longer than any of the others — 44 years — but appears to be willing to press the self-destruct button after only two years sitting in opposition. Somewhere, I’m sure, Peter Lougheed must be spinning in his grave.
Kenney’s rise has been nothing short of remarkable, and after a successful career in federal politics as a member of the sitting government he must have developed a taste for power, because it wasn’t long after the victory of the Trudeau Liberals before he was ruminating about “uniting the right” in Alberta. Still, the position of leader he now inhabits puts him in a strange position — elected to preside over the destruction of the party he just fought to lead. Never let it be said that politics is boring.
Now the real backroom (and frontroom) dealings are set to begin regarding what shape a united conservative party will take. For many, the former Progressive Conservatives represented a pragmatic right-of-centre party that appealed to a swing vote less inclined to cast a ballot in the direction of the more radically-conservative Wildrose Party. The real battleground in the coming months will be to determine who is holding most of the cards — Wildrose or PC — and what form the new party is likely to take, be it a more progressive right-of-centre entity, or a more deeply rightest body destined to please the Wildrose elements.
Either incarnation carries with it political dangers. The former PC government was often accused of being overly pragmatic and willing to often surrender ideological positions in an effort to buy votes and secure power. A similar entity might appeal broadly, but will be unlikely to secure more hardcore conservative voters, who created the Wildrose Party to begin with as an alternative to this PC brand of “conservatism”. Transversely, creating a radically-conservative party more in line with Wildrose idealism is unlikely to appeal to progressives and risks the danger of remaining a fringe party with a rural stronghold, which is largely what the Wildrose Party is today. Finding the happy medium is immensely complex and fraught with dangers and pitfalls — and whatever happens there will be some who are profoundly disaffected by whatever might come next.
Which could mean a drift to the left for a few ostracized MLAs who are unhappy with whatever the Kenney-ites and unite-the-righters create. If the movement morphs into a new Wildrose Party in everything but name, there could be more than a few defections among the progressive elements of the PCs. Not necessarily to the ruling NDP, but perhaps to the Alberta Party or even the Alberta Liberal Party.
And if progressive conservative voters no longer find themselves with a progressive option on the right, but instead a more radical party aligned with Wildrose philosophies — where do they now choose to cast a ballot? The logical option — save but for the possible creation of another progressive conservative party on the right — would be to gravitate more towards a left-of-centre party such as the Liberals, horror of horrors though that might seem for long-time PC supporters.
And while Kenney now has an unequivocal mandate to implement his unite the right scheme, there are some who fear what the man might represent should voters pull out the premier’s chair in 2019. In his time in federal office, Kenney has held a series of controversial socially-conservative viewpoints on a number of issues that might not appeal to broad swaths of Alberta voters who might be strongly interested in fiscal conservatism but much less so about interfering in how some people choose to live their lives.
It must be said that the conservative right’s obsession — both federally and now provincially — with a united front has always been an interesting observation. After all, the left in Canada has never developed a similar obsession — when was the last time you heard anyone chanting at rallies about “Unite the Left”? Few have ever proposed folding the NDP — either provincially or federally — into the Liberal Party, and yet Liberal parties (and NDP provincially) have never had that much trouble achieving majority power in Canada. So what lies at the root of this obsession of the right?
In a word? Expediency. Although conservatives never like to admit it, their core philosophies haven’t always brought them masses of adoring voters in Canada. Even a glancing look at federal politics in the 20th century tells you the Liberal Party ruled about 70 per cent of the time. So to secure power, the view has always been that to split the vote on the right spells disaster at the polls, and a study of electoral history in Canada bears out this assertion. In a first-past-the-post electoral system, it is vital for conservatives to present a united front.
Still, an entrenched uniformity can breed a ridged inflexibility to change, or even new ideas, and not a few conservative parties have gone down to defeat in Canada after hearing the echoes of this refrain reverberate in the campaign headquarters long after the vote has been decided. And there is always a touch of American style two-party politics in a united right, something many Canadian voters react to with disdain.
All of which is to say, with the results of the weekend’s vote and the selection of Jason Kenney as PC leader, all bets are now off for 2019 — and a new ascension of the right just might be in the offing. That is, if Premier Rachel Notley and the NDP don’t have anything to say about it. One can probably rest assured that they will.
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