Don't hold your breath waiting for Alberta's right to unite
by Barry Cooper
April 29, 2016
After the NDP won the provincial election last year, several grassroots efforts arose to unite the right.
Considering the reckless spending the Notley government has undertaken, it might be more accurate to speak about uniting the centre. There is another such meeting this weekend in Red Deer and – full disclosure – I plan to attend.
The problems surrounding any effort at bringing together the two non-socialist parties are almost entirely organizational and not about policy and ideas. This is because all political parties are held together (in order of importance) by friendships nourished by shared experience, by loyalties based on memories of prior struggles, and by shared policy preferences and ideas of justice.
Ideas, the least important, come in two flavours. The first deals with what allies favour; the second on what they reject. The latter are much less cohesive and often much less intelligible than the former.
Focusing on ideas has led commentators to conclude that is it somehow inevitable that the anti-socialist parties will come together. This is wishful thinking. Mostly, the individuals and groups who make such commonsensical statements about uniting all right-thinking people against the big-government spendthrifts in the NDP are themselves outside the two non-socialist parties.
Despite occasional calls for joint conversations over “principles,” very little has happened. There was a brief period of informal co-operation when Wildrose relinquished their position in question period after the death of MLA Manmeet Bhullar, so the PCs could ask the NDP about matters their late colleague thought important.
A few weeks later, both parties ran candidates to replace Bhullar in the Calgary-Greenway byelection. The 29 per cent voter turnout indicated that the PCs were not yet comatose. But it was very close: if 159 PC voters had switched to Wildrose, they would have won. It was also a reflection of how much Bhullar was liked, respected, and missed by his constituents.
Both parties concluded they had rosy futures, so there was no serious need to hook up.
The history of the two parties over the past few years is about obstacles to co-operation. The PCs point to their core support of around 25 per cent of Albertans, which is equal to the NDP and eight to 10 points behind Wildrose. The diminished PC rump have long memories of their own glory days. Many are genuine urban progressives with a deep antipathy to the warmed-over Socred country bumpkins in Wildrose.
For their part, Wildrose core supporters have not overcome their disgust for the PC machine and their distrust of their own leadership, which, as Danielle Smith showed, can act in their own interests without even considering their core supporters.
Finally, there is the problem of timing. Without a permanent PC leader, even if the Wildrosers wanted to create a New Conservative Party rather than absorb the PCs, it is not likely to happen in the next year or so.
When the PCs get a permanent leader in 2017, there will be no time to amalgamate before the election, especially if the NDP calls an early one.
Worse, the struggle of the PC leadership contest precludes anyone promising to join with Wildrose. Rather, the new leader will promise to restore the party to strength, greatness and government, not amalgamate with the treacherous upstarts.
Ironically, Bhullar might have been statesman enough to create a New Conservative Party with the existing Wildrose. Until the PCs find a leader unconnected to the old PC machine, there can be no serious talk even about common principles. And what happens outside the parties is almost without significance.
Barry Cooper is political science professor at the University of Calgary.