Members of Alberta's Progressive Conservative party—which held government for more consecutive years than any other party in Canadian history—started voting this week on whether to self-dissolve.
The three-day "unity vote" is expected to yield results by Saturday evening, answering a call to unite the province's two right-wing parties.
An ex-minister in former prime minister Stephen Harper's federal Conservative cabinet, Jason Kenney first floated the unite-the-right idea last year when he announced his bid to lead the provincial Tories.
At that time, he argued the only way to end the reign of the "accidental NDP government" was to unite the Progressive Conservatives with the right-wing Wildrose Alliance.
He repeated that message this week in a Facebook video posted to urge party members to vote for building a United Conservative Party. He warned them of the danger of splitting ballots between right-wing parties in 2019, making room for Rachel Notley's NDP party to win a second term.
“I for one am not prepared to take that risk. Alberta is too important,” Kenney said. “Let’s turn our attention from the past to the future, from division to unity, from what separates us to what unites us.”
Notley's NDP government—in power now for just two years—has been criticized for its oversight of a provincial economy that has suffered under the weight of low oil revenues.
In his Facebook video, Kenney said — without evidence — that the NDP government was responsible for lost jobs and fleeing investments. He also described the future United Conservative Party as intent on safeguarding "traditional beliefs" in personal responsibility, economic growth, self-reliance, health care, school choice, and property rights. In sum, he describes his vision as, “Government as servant and not master.”
Kenney has posted links on his social media accounts to various media reports and publications from organizations such as the Fraser Institute and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers to back up his claims. But he has offered few details of concrete policies that would help Alberta grow its economy.
In the last week, Tories interviewed by the National Observer have said they anticipate the unity vote will be successful, though some expressed doubts about whether taking down the NDP is enough of a policy for a new party intent on one day governing.
"You can’t be a government based on, 'get rid of (the) NDP.' You have to start putting policies forward, and that’s where the fracturing begins," said former Progressive Conservative deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk.
Lukaszuk served in both Ed Stelmach's and Alison Redford's provincial cabinets, and suggested Notley's government is "paying the price for an economic cycle" and can’t be blamed for the drop in resource revenues.
“But, much like (former prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau's) National Energy Program, Premier Rachel Notley and her government have introduced a number of policies and initiatives that are not helping the situation, or perhaps one could argue are making the situation worse," Lukaszuk said, noting Notley's carbon tax and increase in minimum wages. "All you can really blame that government for is introducing a whole slew of initiatives, whether you agree with them or not, simply at the worst time possible in this economy.”
National Observer made several calls to the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, the Wildrose Alliance, and members of the Wildrose caucus, but interview requests were declined or went unanswered.
Finally seeing "the dust settle" since historic 2015 election
While the Wildrose Alliance is expected to meet Saturday in Red Deer, Alta. for debates, voting, and a closing speech by leader Brian Jean, the party of Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein planned an online- and phone-only summer referendum.
Former Alberta attorney general Jonathan Denis, who served in the Stelmach, Redford, and Jim Prentice cabinets, said Friday he voted for unity in the Progressive Conservative party's referendum, and bought a membership in the Wildrose Alliance in July to do the same.
"There's much more in common with the two parties than different," Denis said, noting the parties have often voted the same way in the legislature.
Denis was among a small group of backbencher MLAs in Stelmach's 2008-2011 government who challenged the then-premier to move further to the right on fiscal matters. Another, Rob Anderson, later crossed the floor to the Wildrose Alliance. Denis was appointed to cabinet by Stelmach in 2010.
He lost his Calgary seat in the 2015 election and has since vocally supported uniting the right and advocated the two conservative parties quit fighting with each other. Denis is also a member of the federal Conservative Party, and has been a member of the Progressive Conservative party in Alberta since moving to the province in 2000 from Saskatchewan.
"Looking towards the federal model, people were able to put the past behind them and were able to have 10 successful years of government under Stephen Harper," Denis said.
The unite-the-right movement has also drawn some inspiration from U.S. President Donald Trump's successful campaign that brought him to the White House. Last July, when Kenney launched his bid, one supporter from the Wildrose party, Kean Bexte, was sporting a red-and-white cap in the style of Trump's famous "Make America Great Again" hats. The student, a founder of a Wildrose association at the University of Calgary, had a cap with its own made-in-Alberta message to "Make Alberta Debt-Free Again".
Denis, the former attorney general, said he planned to spend Saturday with friends from his former constituency, and was optimistic about the weekend's results, which would be followed by a new leadership competition and an establishment of the united party's core principles.
"It is going to be a monumental event that will shape Alberta's future for the next several years," Denis said.
He also supported Kenney's leadership bid for the Progressive Conservatives, and plans to do so going forward.
Others told the National Observer it had been a humbling two years for those trying to rebuild the Progressive Conservative brand since former premier Jim Prentice lost the election to Notley in 2015.
The Tories had been in power for nearly 44 years, often as a big-tent party drawing in people from the province's right as well as its centre. In the late 2000s and early 2010s, some members and support began to peel off from the party's right flank, creating a strong Wildrose Alliance.
As premier, Prentice had tried to reunite the two right-wing parties by bringing members, including then-Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and former Tory-turned-Wildroser Rob Anderson, into his caucus. In the 2015 provincial election, the Progressive Conservatives were reduced to just 10 Legislature seats from 61 in 2012. The Wildrose maintained Official Opposition status, and the NDP took 54 of the Legislature's 72 seats (in 2012, they had won only four seats).
Prentice, who was among four people killed in a tragic plane crash last October, resigned as the Progressive Conservative party's leader immediately after the 2015 election, launching a party leadership race.
When Kenney was chosen as leader in March, a former member of the party's executive said, "The funding dried up because people didn't know what was going to happen."
Patty Wickstrom had been a member of the Progressive Conservative party for more than two decades, and described herself as "kind of feel[ing] a little bit in mourning." She left her position as party secretary last week, but said Thursday she voted against the two parties merging.
"I don't believe in the unity direction," she said, describing its main goal as beating the NDP. She described two camps within the divided party: "There's people who are for unity and people who worked so hard to rebuild the party."
Another option emerges in centre
Those who want to see the parties unite are expected to win in the Progressive Conservative party's referendum.
“I think it’s going to go through because I just think there’s a lot of people that are motivated to get this done," said Katherine O'Neill, the party's former president.
O'Neill, a former national journalist and Progressive Conservative candidate, resigned as party president soon after Kenney won the leadership. She is now executive director of Alberta Together, which she describes as a new centrist organization akin to the Canada West Foundation, the Manning Centre or the Broadbent Institute. Their aim is to give Albertans a middle-road choice between Notley's NDP and the new United Conservative Party.
The results of this weekend's vote, O'Neill said, “will give people a lot more clarity" about where the different political parties stand.
“I think a lot has to go back to the 2015 election," she said. "We had the same government for 44 years, the PC party is the longest-serving government in Canadian history. So that’s unprecedented, and when you have that kind of political stability for that long, there was bound to be a period of readjustment after 2015. … We’re seeing the dust settle from that election still, and we’re seeing a political realignment happening.”
Is the show over?
Lukaszuk also expects the unite-the-right vote to be successful within the Progressive Conservative party's ranks on Saturday, though he dubs it as more of a "hold our noses to win government" power grab than the big-tent building the Tories boasted of in the past.
Even under the big tent, though, Lukaszuk noted there were always wide differences between those on the left, the centre, and on the right within the party's caucus and cabinet.
“The problem with the PC party was when a party is in power for this long, a lot of people who simply are interested in being in government and having power end up running for the party," Lukaszuk said. “If you wanted to be close to power in Alberta for 40-some years, you had to be PC. ...
“I used to call it the ticket to the show. In the PC party, the real election was to win the nomination race.”
Lukaszuk said he had "unceremoniously discarded" his membership, and so would not vote on the merger.
Some progressives within the Progressive Conservative membership have already shown interest in joining the Alberta Party, which currently holds only one seat in the province's legislature.
Outside the province, Alberta is sometimes dubbed the Texas of Canada. But, Lukaszuk noted, the Progressive Conservatives were never led by "a conservative premier the likes of Jason Kenney or Brian Jean or Derek Fildebrandt...
“Alberta has never truly politically been a conservative province. We are a province that is fiscally responsible, but socially, contrary to this image that we like to propagate about ourselves—the sort of cowboy, tough, right-leaning (province)—we’re anything but that.”
The test of the new party—and Alberta politics—will come in 2019, Lukaszuk said.