Jason Kenney’s unite-the-right plan might one day win Alberta

Next Door Neighbours | by Gillian Steward

Believe it or not, the new leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives won on a promise to kill the party. The party of Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, the party that held the reins of government for 44 years is now on life support, waiting for its leader and majority of members to pull the plug.

Of course, the new leader, Jason Kenney, former cabinet minister and acolyte of Stephen Harper, isn’t about to work himself out of a job. Instead, he sees himself as the leader of a united Alberta conservative movement that would rid the province of Rachel Notley’s NDP government so he could eventually become premier.

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is. Kenney’s plan is basically the same as the push by Preston Manning, the former leader of the Reform Party, to unite federal conservative factions and run the Liberals out of office.

Manning’s plan eventually succeeded when Stephen Harper, leader of the new Conservative Party became Prime Minister. Will it work in Alberta? It might.

There’s no question that conservative candidates garnered more votes than NDP candidates in the 2015 election that swept Rachel Notley into the premier’s office.

The Wildrose Party, which is now the official opposition, received 28 per cent of the vote; the PCs with leader Jim Prentice, 24 per cent. The NDP received 41 per cent; the conservative split served them well.

The numbers certainly buttress the idea that a united conservative movement is just common sense.

But so far, common sense has eluded both the Wildrose Party and the PCs, who were reduced to 10 seats in the legislature after the last election. Instead, they have waged a civil war against each other that may even produce a third party, made up of PC members who abhor the way Jason Kenney has taken a dive to the far right in order to capture Wildrose supporters, who are led by another Harper-era MP, Brian Jean.

Those PCs are personified by Sandra Jansen, a former PC cabinet minister, who withdrew from the leadership race shortly after she entered it because of harassment and online trolling from Kenney supporters. Soon after she crossed the floor to the NDP.

But Kenney has also pledged to get rid of the NDP government’s carbon tax, in fact its entire Climate Change Action Plan. That resonates with the majority of Albertans who, polls show, have yet to embrace the tax. The NDP’s latest deficit budget has also set off alarm bells among conservatives because it forecasts that balanced budgets won’t return until 2023, at which time total debt could be over $70 billion.

And never mind that a lot of Albertans just can’t reconcile the notion that their province is in the hands of the “socialist” NDP. Labels still mean a lot in Alberta (just ask the Liberals) even though Notley has been moving the party to the centre and is at war with the federal NDP as well as its B.C. wing over oil pipelines and other natural resource issues.

The next provincial election is at the most only two years away. So Kenney has a lot of work ahead of him if he hopes to have an election-ready single conservative party up and running before then.

For starters, he doesn’t have a seat in the Legislature. And if there is to be a single conservative party both the Wildrose and the PC parties would have to get their members to agree to disband.

They would then have to turn over all their assets, including money banked, to Elections Alberta until they get a new party up and running. At this point the Wildrose has raised much more money than the PCs. Will they be willing to turn that over to another party? Then the leader of the new party would have to be chosen.

But conservatism runs deep in Alberta and while it took eight years and lots of embarrassing infighting before federal conservatives got it together, they eventually did.

Bringing together conservatives in one province should be a lot easier. ❧

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. This column originally appeared in the Toronto Star.