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Alberta’s Conservatives May Have Merged, But the Family Feud Isn’t Over

It’s getting pretty wild in the west.

Drew Brown

Drew Brown

Alberta Wildrose leader Brian Jean and Alberta PC leader Jason Kenney shake hands after the merger. | Jason Franson / The Canadian Press 

Yeeeeehaw, pardners: there's a new sheriff in town. He's mad as hell at Rachel Notley and the Alberta NDP and he's not going to take it anymore.

After nearly a decade of family squabbling between the Progressive Conservatives of Alberta and the Wildrose Alliance, members of both parties voted overwhelmingly—nearly 95 percent apiece—to dissolve and join forces over the weekend. Their hope is that the United Conservative Party can restore the natural order of the universe by undoing the NDP's surprise 2015 election victory. (If nothing else, it has at least confirmed the longstanding Alberta tradition of a longtime ruling party immediately dissolving itself after losing an election.)

So far, everything is going according to plan for Papist dreamboat Jason Kenney, the ex-Harper lieutenant who earlier this year won the PC leadership contest on a merger ticket. Whether or not he can also win the leadership of the new UCP remains to be seen, as he will almost certainly be squaring off against Wildrose leader Brian Jean, as well as Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer and Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt. More may yet come out of the woodwork as the days unfold.

The motivation for the merger is clear enough. Vote-splitting between the Wildrose and the PCs in 2015 is seen as one of the deciding factors that put the NDP in power, and an NDP-controlled Alberta is an affront to God and conservatives everywhere. This was clear enough when Jean took to the stage following the Wildrose merger vote to declare that "together, we will send a message to all of Canada that Alberta is not apologizing for our industries or our way of life." It's not enough that the NDP is trying to impose carbon levies in Canada's oil country; they're spitting in the face of family farms and God-fearing types across the heartland, too.

It would be difficult to understate how compelling a United Conservative Party running on a message of "we're not the NDP" would be to a lot of Albertans. Notley's administration faced the unenviable task of struggling to reconcile the oil patch with the demands of taking climate change seriously at the same moment as global prices have been tumbling. The party has staked its fortunes to getting one of three pipelines approved, a process which is ultimately out of its control. They're also trying to cram a generation's worth of socially progressive policies into a four-year term, which would be an uphill battle in fair times but utterly Sisyphean in a bad economy. With a single strong conservative opposition instead of two weaker ones, the next election will be the fight of Notley's political life.

But it's also very easy to overstate how effective the new party will actually be. The merger doesn't guarantee an inevitable conservative restoration in 2019. The upcoming leadership contest will lay bare how hard it is to bring the many contentious factions of Alberta's right into one tent. Militant social conservatives and scorched-earth libertarians and climate change deniers (which abound in Alberta) and more 'moderate' fiscal hawks will have to sit down and dine at the same table without shanking one another. The next leader will have to articulate policies that can somehow please all of these people while also winning support from the general voting public. This is easier said than done; just ask Danielle Smith how the Wildrose tumbled down, down, down into that burning ring of fire in 2012.

The merger vote itself is revealing here. The 'Yes' vote was overwhelming among both PCs and the Wildrose, but voter turnout among both parties hovered between 55 and 60 percent. If they could only get half their respective memberships excited about the prospect of a united right, how will they be able to excite the broader voting public? A number of moderate PCs have already jumped ship in search of a new political home, and some dissident Wildrose members have threatened to form another right-wing protest party should the UCP inevitably fail their ideological purity test. A lot of the next two years will hinge on whether the new party can strike the delicate balance between "too Wildrose" and "not Wildrose enough." When push comes to shove, how many Albertans will really want to see LGBT rights or front-line social services rolled back?

It's impossible to predict what might actually happen in 2019. If the last decade has taught anyone anything, it's that there are no safe bets in Alberta politics. There are a lot of moving pieces, and a sudden upswing in oil prices—or, say, a housing market crash—could dramatically shift the fortunes of all players involved.

Alberta itself is having a bit of an identity crisis, which makes it hard to tell which of the old political certainties still hold. Maybe demographics really are destiny and the increasingly urban, increasingly young, and increasingly diverse population will see the NDP through the final death rattles of Alberta's conservative dynasty. Or maybe the Notley government really is an accident, an aberration in Alberta history to be blotted out under another generation of restored right-wing rule.

So giddyup folks. You won't want to miss the high noon coming in 2019. It'll definitely be one for the books.

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