Political Redux – May 2017

by Chris Berger

It’s an interesting time to be a politico in Alberta, and depending on how one is engaged, that could be good, bad, exciting, ominous, or just plain confusing and frustrating. Theoretically, the next formal political milestones should be the municipal elections in Edmonton and Calgary this fall. Practically, however, all eyes are on the recently announced agreement in principle between the Wildrose Party and the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta (PCAA). Most people who have been tuned in will have been expecting this, but now that something is on paper, the province can rest assured (or uneasy) that the game has been changed.

With this tentative agreement now in place, we know that a vote on the unification of these two parties into the United Conservative Party (UCP) will occur this July by both legacy parties’ memberships. Assuming this is successful, a leadership vote for the new party will occur this fall, on October 28. We know that Jason Kenney, newly elected leader of the PCAA, and Brian Jean, leader of the Wildrose, will be competing for the leadership, with rumours that a non-committal Derek Fildebrandt (the Wildrose’s firebrand finance critic) may seek that top spot as well. Moderate PCAA folks will also want to keep an eye on Doug Schweitzer, a Calgary lawyer who has announced his intention to run. (It’s worth noting that Rona Ambrose, interim leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, recently confirmed she’s resigning her seat – but not to get involved with the new provincial party, she wants to make clear.)

These, so far, are the facts. Now, what to make of them? For one thing, we can safely bet that the incumbent NDP government is put on edge by this development. Stereotypes don’t come out of nothing, and it would be myopic to suppose that a traditionally conservative province has suddenly swung substantively, fundamentally leftward in its political culture – regardless of where one’s partisan sympathies lie, most reasonable observers would agree that the 2015 upset was the result, in no small part, of a protest vote. And it must be acknowledged in light of this that, for all the former PCAA supporters that vented their angst in the form of an NDP vote, many others jumped ship to the Wildrose. If this were not the case, this merger would not have had a chance of success to begin with. The point is that a large chunk of the vote that put the current government into power cannot be assumed to repeat that behaviour in the next election.

Having said all this, Albertans are not reducible to a simple left-right dichotomy. This is, after all, the province of Peter Lougheed, a prudent centrist if ever there was one. It was Lougheed and his legacy that created the oft-touted Alberta advantage that successor regimes have debated how to preserve and capitalize upon. Hence we’d be sorely remiss if we overlooked the quiet emergence of a centrist third option. Greg Clark of the Alberta Party is positioning himself as a rallying point for those for whom the leftist government and rightist opposition are both unattractive options.

In particular, he has been courting those moderate PCAA members who have found themselves politically homeless in the wake of Jason Kenney’s blitzkrieg through their party. The new movement, if it is not too premature to use that term at this point, even has a slogan: “Centre Together.” A recent open-ended talk between centrists across party lines in Red Deer (featuring Clark’s Alberta Party and the Alberta Liberals, but also former cabinet minister and Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, among other PCAA members) hints that something new may be in store for the Alberta political landscape.

The Globe and Mail published a piece by Tony Coulson from Environics Research on May 13th, presenting some interesting numbers from a study they ran. In a hypothetical choice between the NDP, a united right in the UCP, and a centrist option, 21 percent chose the centre (14 percent chose the NDP, and about half of the total chose the UCP). Given the largely conjectural nature of the options, a grain of salt should be taken in digesting this scenario, but it does indicate an appetite for centrism amongst Alberta voters, and it certainly suggests that the current government can’t afford to be complacent or take its support for granted.

It’s becoming common to hear supporters of the government assert that their party is centrist. This isn’t the place to get granular with policy specifics, but the Environics numbers do indicate that not all Albertans would agree (I leave analysis of policy developments in the last two years in the capable hands of readers who may decide for themselves where on the spectrum this government sits). One thing is certain: Premier Notley’s administration sits between a rock and a hard place. Governance naturally forces a shift toward the centre – the demands of action manifest as pragmatism, and ideological puritanism is a luxury and privilege unique to armchair activists (leaving aside for the moment violent revolutionaries and martyrs). Nothing will make this clearer than the need to deal with the dilemma raised in the wake of British Columbia’s election.

The BC Greens and NDP have come to an agreement that could spell doom for the incumbent Liberals, which poses a formidable challenge to Alberta’s energy interests in getting a pipeline to the west coast. Prime Minister Trudeau and Premier Notley have since re-affirmed their support for the Kinder Morgan expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline. While Premier Notley’s government has sought to uphold Alberta’s interests when it comes to pipelines, her government will be in the difficult position of advocating for pipelines against their ideological kin in BC – who are, as is well known, quite against the Kinder Morgan project (this is not even to mention their new partners, the Greens, who are if anything even more vocal in their opposition to moving oil to the coast). If Premier Notley wants to convert some of the protest vote that awarded her the government into loyal, lasting support, her ability to navigate this perilous course will prove decisive.

It’s rash at this point to suppose the government will call a snap election to catch the soon-to-be united right off balance. But it’s equally naïve to gloss over the fact that the UCP will almost certainly make the NDP a one-term government and claim top spot when the scheduled 2019 election rolls around, unless the unforeseen happens in the next two years. Might the unforeseen include a third way in the form of a centrist alternative party? Or a comeback for moderate, centrist principles under a Schweitzer-led UCP? At this point it’s best to exercise restraint and acknowledge that it’s far from certain. But it may, and, if I may speak personally, we can hope. Some say centrism is dying, but if that’s the case, and if there are some remaining gasps left, let at least one of them occur here.

Banner photography courtesy of Jordon Hon

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