On May 6, 2015, Albertans woke up to a new provincial government and political reality, the likes of which they had never seen before. The party of Peter Lougheed, Don Getty, and Ralph Klein – the once proud, Alberta Progressive Conservative Association – lay in tatters after receiving a drubbing by an electorate that had grown tired of the political inertia that had crept into the provincial PC machinery and had begun to outwardly manifest itself under the failed Premiership of Alison Redford.
When Rachel Notley took to the stage in Edmonton on the evening of May 5 to celebrate the New Democratic Party’s unprecedented victory, the winds of change were already seen to be blowing through Alberta’s political landscape. The sudden resignation of Jim Prentice from his Calgary-Foothills seat and the leadership of the Alberta PC Party signaled the start of the next era of Alberta politics. While most pundits and prognosticators on election night, and in the weeks since, have been focused on the short term (to wit, how Notley’s inexperienced team of MLAs would perform now that they had been thrust into a governing role), a small minority of political observers immediately recognized that an opportunity had presented itself on the evening of May 5 for Alberta conservatives to put the wheels in motion on forging a much-needed provincial political realignment.
Political realignments on the provincial level, by their very nature, happen more often than those that occur on the federal political scene, by virtue of the fact that there are 10 provincial governments versus that of one federal government. Western Canada has also typically served as the cradle for these generational shifts in the political landscape, at both the federal and provincial levels. We can look to Thomas Crerar, John Diefenbaker, Ernest Manning, the group of 8 MLAs who helped form the Saskatchewan Party in 1997, and more recently, Preston Manning as examples of politicians who were ahead of their time, recognized which way the electoral winds were blowing, and sought to seize an opportunity to change the course of history for their province/country.
As someone who was invested fairly heavily in the last unite-the-right movement at the federal level in the late 1990’s, Paul Wells’ tweet on election night, calling for several Wildrose and PC Party members to call for a merger between their two parties (in the interest of the “medium-term” future of conservatism in Alberta), brought back a flood of memories from my days as an undergraduate student at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.
During the third year of my Political Science degree, while serving as President of the Nova Scotia PC Youth, I attended the first United Alternative convention in Ottawa (In February 1999) where I spoke on behalf of forming a new party in which Progressive Conservatives and Reformers could come together to fight the Liberals. At the time, Atlantic Canadian PC Party members who were supportive of the “Unite the Right” movement at the federal level were generally treated with derision by PC Party apparatchik, due to the insistence of then-PC leader Joe Clark that his party would have “no truck nor trade” with the Reform Party or any entity that would come out of the United Alternative consultations. Upon my return to Nova Scotia after the convention, I was quickly removed from my position by my PC Youth executive members who had decided that to follow the Joe Clark dicta was more important than ensuring that our federal political establishment had one strong, right-of-centre party.
Of course, time eventually brought vindication of my original position. Even before the federal PC and Reform Parties came together in 2003, nobody could rationally dispute that a united, credible right-of-centre alternative had a chance of forming government at the provincial level. It only seemed natural that the same result could be replicated on a national scale.
Despite the success that has been demonstrated by the united Conservative party at the federal level, it has been disheartening to listen to leaders like Brian Jean and Ric McIver suggest that the only way a united right will happen in Alberta is if the supporters of one party join the other. These were the same lines that were recited ad nauseam for years by hardline federal PCs and Reform Party members ever since the idea of a united federal conservative party was first floated by David Frum at the “Winds of Change” conference in Calgary in 1996. Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay demonstrated in 2003 that principles can indeed trump egos in politics, especially when the alternative is perpetual political inertia.
On an overall voter turnout of 58.25%, the Alberta NDP took 40.57% of the provincial vote. The Alberta PC Party took 27.78%, and the Wild Rose Party was not far behind at 24.23%. A combination of the PC and Wild Rose vote would have amounted to 52.01% (i.e. the typical vote share that would be enjoyed by a united conservative party in the province). Adding the vote totals of PC and Wild Rose candidates together, a united conservative party in Alberta would have likely elected at least 61 MLAs to the legislature.
Most pundits and even casual observers would agree that the NDP wave that recently swept across Alberta was not the result of an intellectual or cultural epiphany experienced by a plurality of its citizens; there was no historical “bloody shirt” such as the threat of conscription or the significant regulation of oil revenues that served to galvanize wide swaths of the electorate. As such, as fast as the NDP tide rolled in, it could roll out again in 2019, as long as there is a united right. And the only way a strong, united conservative party would have a rational prospect of succeeding in 4 years’ time is if merger talks are broached on a good faith basis between the Alberta PC and Wild Rose apparatchik over the next calendar year.