For all intents and purposes, the United Conservative Party Jason Kenney helped create is dead. And yet, after its recent convention, attended by about 3,800, it’s probably more united than ever. That’s because Kenney’s attempt to merge the Alberta Progressive Conservatives with the Wildrose Party has ended in a de-facto takeover of the former by the latter — one that was on full display in Calgary over the weekend. “The moderates never showed up,” longtime Alberta political watcher Graham Thomson wrote. “Or the few that did were steamrolled by a juggernaut.”
Kenney’s vision of a pro-business, small-government, big-tent party, well-represented in both urban and rural parts of the province, is as irrelevant today as the Alberta Liberal Party’s electoral chances. In its place is a coalition of rural grievance merchants, COVID-19 skeptics, anti-LGBTQ activists, and social conservatives determined to mire Alberta in rearguard cultural battles and own-the-libs policies. “The mere presence of expertise annoyed some delegates,” Calgary Herald columnist Don Braid wrote. “There’s no place in this group for anybody who smacks of the old establishment or doesn’t believe key systems like health care and education are hopelessly polluted by moderation and woke-ism.”
This is more bad news for wishful thinkers who, like Braid, wanted to believe Premier Danielle Smith would govern more towards the middle and implement sensible small-c conservative policies. They’ve already had to reckon with her decision to nationalize a major health-care company, shut down an entire part of the energy sector and embark on a pension plan gambit she promised voters would never happen under her watch. Anyone who counts themselves as a more progressive kind of conservative has to reckon with the reality that their political party is being run almost exclusively by people who are hostile to expertise, suspicious of science, and indifferent towards things like jobs, the economy, or pipelines, the holy trinity that helped elected Kenney and the UCP in 2019.
Despite her popularity among the faithful this past weekend, it’s worth wondering whether Smith can avoid the same fate as Kenney. Remember, he was just as beloved back in the early days of his first term as premier, and had the benefit of governing with a far bigger majority than she has today. And while Smith told reporters that policy resolutions passed over the weekend needed to be put through “the lens of what is best for Albertans as a whole,” the people who now control her party’s executive and membership base don't see it that way. “Those who do not listen to the grassroots, or attempt to thwart their involvement in the decision-making process, will be removed from power,” Take Back Alberta leader David Parker tweeted.
That will be an increasingly difficult line for Smith to walk, as the obvious desire of said grassroots to litigate culture war battles over pronouns, public health measures and even “15-minute cities” runs up against her need to appeal to a broader segment of the Alberta public. Parker, for example, might think rural Albertans constitute a majority in the province, but that’s more a reflection of the math skills he was given by his home-schooled upbringing than reality. The populations in the census metropolitan areas of Edmonton and Calgary are larger than the rest of the province, and that’s before removing the hundreds of thousands who live in cities like Lethbridge, Red Deer, Fort McMurray and Grande Prairie.
Smith’s first test will be her handling of so-called “parental rights” and transgender students, which earned her the biggest standing ovation during her convention speech. In the past, as the CBC’s Jason Markusoff noted, she’s talked about this issue and her personal relationship to it in a way that sets her apart from the far-right culture warriors in her midst — and her audience over the weekend. “But with her party so clearly driven in one direction on this,” Markusoff writes, “she's opening the door to some kind of action.”
That action will almost certainly disappoint some of the hardliners running her party who view the issue with almost messianic clarity. The big question then becomes how many of those disappointments they’re willing to tolerate before they start looking for someone willing to govern more in alignment with their values, and how far Smith is willing to go to avoid that outcome.
None of this is good for the millions of Albertans who live in its cities and suburbs and want to see their government focus on things like the economy, education and health care. But as the UCP made abundantly clear over the weekend, they’re just not interested in what those people want anymore. Time will tell whether that matters to voters in the next election — and how much damage this version of the UCP can do in the meantime.