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Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta's Wildrose Alliance. (Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press)
Danielle Smith, leader of Alberta's Wildrose Alliance. (Ian Jackson/The Canadian Press)

RAY PENNINGS

In Alberta, are 'conservatives' dead as a dodo? Add to ...

The task of keeping the torch of Canada’s most dominant political dynasty aflame has suddenly become more daunting.

One of the unabashed “progressives” – Gary Mar, Alison Redford or Doug Horner – will be chosen by those with Progressive Conservative memberships on Oct. 1 to replace Ed Stelmach as Alberta’s premier. None, in their search for the province’s ultimate prize, will be burdened by the need to pander to or even negotiate with the province’s conservative constituency. That’s because not a single “conservative” leadership contender – most notably Ted Morton – made the cut in the first round of voting on Sept. 17 – an event noteworthy for a turnout that declined by close to 40 per cent.

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This is catastrophic for conservatives still within the PC tent. Simultaneously, it’s a dream outcome for those on the centre-right who’ve moved to Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance and for whom the worst-case scenario was a Morton victory. Finishing fourth on Sept. 17, Mr. Morton had placed second in the first round of leadership balloting in 2006 with a platform that mirrors the one developed by Wildrose. It was Mr. Morton, too, who, as finance minister, dug in his heels last winter and precipitated the crisis that led to Mr. Stelmach’s retirement. Mere months ago, he was seen as the man most capable of reuniting Alberta’s conservatives.

One of the idiosyncratic legacies of four decades of uninterrupted PC power in Alberta is the process used to select its leaders. Candidates may sell memberships right up to within two weeks of leadership ballots, and voting occurs at polling stations within each constituency. Reminiscent of the “the party is the people; the people are the party” justification of one-party states, this process gives people from all political backgrounds the opportunity to select their premier.

Many Liberals, New Democrats and others have taken the approach that, if their movements can’t gain power in elections, they can at least exercise their influence by selecting their opponent’s leader. It’s this that makes them into two-night-stand Conservatives and convenient, if temporary, allies for leadership candidates. Unable to win power from without, they gain it from within, and there’s certainly no shortage of conservative thinkers who suspect the PCs have been the victim of a bloodless, albeit democratic, coup. The fact that long-time Liberal heavyweight Daryl Fridhandler is associated with the Mar campaign has done little to dispel these suspicions.

It’s impossible to track the extent to which this strategic voting takes place, but there’s no question it’s a feature unique to Alberta PC leadership campaigns. (As a for instance, I was told last week of a left-of-centre Alberta Party supporter who purchased a Tory membership in order to vote for Mr. Morton, hoping that a Morton victory would clearly position the Tories on the right and thus leave more room for the Alberta Party to win votes on the left in the next election.)

In the midst of all this, long-time conservative activist Ken Boessenkool and a small but influential Blue Committee are searching for a way to reunite the now defeated conservative wing of the PCs with Wildrose in order to avoid the split-right scenario that guaranteed three consecutive federal majority governments for Jean Chrétien’s Liberals. The fear, as Mr. Boessenkool puts it, is that such a split could lead to Alberta’s being governed by a centre-left party.

Many would argue that, as of the final PC vote on Oct. 1, that horse will have left the barn. The PC dynasty lives on, but 40 years of conservative rule in Alberta may have come to an end.

Ray Pennings is a senior fellow at Cardus.

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