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Alberta Alberta conservatives revive debate over uniting the right

Delbert Beazer, the head of the Cardston-Taber-Warner PC constituency association, whose executive is in favour of merger with Wildrose Party.

Delbert Beazer, the head of the Cardston-Taber-Warner PC constituency association, whose executive is in favour of merger with Wildrose Party.

Chris Bolin/For The Globe and Mail

The right time to unite?

Nearly a year into NDP rule, conservatives in Alberta debate whether to unite the right, reports Justin Giovannetti

After a lifetime as a Progressive Conservative, Delbert Beazer has had enough.

It took a revolving door of ousted premiers, four in five years, and policies he stopped agreeing with, to convince him that the political machine once synonymous with Alberta was too adrift to be saved. He now wants the PCs to merge with the Wildrose Party.

Mr. Beazer is the president of the Tory constituency association in Cardston-Taber-Warner, a deeply conservative riding that runs along Alberta's southern border. Since the early 2000s, the seat has flipped back and forth between the PCs and the Wildrose Party. After years of fighting, he says both parties in the riding are now ready to bury the hatchet and unite the right.

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"We've got to bring our voices together and settle our differences," Mr. Beazer said. "If we want to win seats back in the next election that needs to happen."

Alberta's political right was shaken by Rachel Notley's victory and the election of the province's first New Democratic government last May. Since then, protests have been held calling for Ms. Notley's dismissal, petitions have circulated, businessmen have offered money for her resignation, political action committees have been formed – and, through it all, voices have joined a unite-the-right movement.

NDP Premier Rachel Notley's election victory last year has breathed new urgency into the unite-the-right movement.

NDP Premier Rachel Notley’s election victory last year has breathed new urgency into the unite-the-right movement.

AMBER BRACKEN/For The Globe and Mail

However, nearly a year after the NDP took power in Alberta, there appears to be no clear path for a merger of the province's two main right-of-centre political parties. The interim Tory leadership that took over after Jim Prentice resigned last year after losing the party's nearly 44-year grip on power has given little encouragement for the idea. And overshadowing the discussions in Alberta has been the ascendance of Donald Trump, the dysfunction of the U.S. Republican primaries, and the clear warning both hold for the fracturing of a right-wing movement.

The leader of Alberta's official opposition, the Wildrose Party, says a merger is necessary to remove any risk of Ms. Notley staying in power. The alternative, warns Brian Jean, is the destruction of Alberta's economy.

Mr. Jean, based in Fort McMurray, began his political career in federal politics, elected to Parliament in 2004, under the newly formed Conservative banner. The uniting of the federal right, a merger of the Canadian Alliance and the Progressive Conservatives, was fuelled by two leaders who spoke publicly about the need for unity.

Mr. Jean says such clear leadership is missing in Alberta.

"We have 99 per cent of things in common and we have 1 per cent difference. Let's forget about that 1 per cent," he said from his office in Edmonton. "Right now, we need a leader and I feel that I'm the leader that can facilitate these discussions and encourage my membership's desire to have one party on the right."

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Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean walks through the crowd after being declared the official opposition in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday May 5, 2015.

Alberta Wildrose Leader Brian Jean walks through the crowd after being declared the official opposition in Fort McMurray, Alta., on Tuesday May 5, 2015.

Mr. Jean says that the move toward a merger on the right has been going faster than he expected and the Wildrose leader now has his dancing shoes on to work with the Tories. With a caucus that is twice as large as the PCs and with better fundraising numbers, he says he's in the "driver's seat" for the talks.

After former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith's defection to the Tories along with the majority of the party's MLAs in December, 2014, Mr. Jean is concerned about the appearance of another move from the top. He says the process needs to be led from the grassroots, with discussions such as the one Mr. Beazer is having.

One thing that does worry him is merging or amalgamating with a party whose financial fundamentals he questions. "I can't describe the PCs as anything other than bankrupt. They face dire problems," he said.

Interim PC leader Ric McIver told The Globe and Mail that he hasn't spoken much about the unite-the-right sentiment over the past month. His party is still the home of conservatives and progressives in the province and he's told people such as Mr. Beazer to hold on, the Tories will rebuild.

"A merger isn't really on my mind," he said. "You know, almost everyone in the Wildrose Party used to be a member of our party. The fact that the right is split is because the Wildrose split away – anyone concerned about a split in the right should remember who split it."

With the Progressive Conservatives winning a crucial by-election in Calgary-Greenway this past Tuesday, retaining a seat that had belonged to a popular MLA, some on the PC side might see less of a reason to engage in talks with the Wildrose.

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Stephen Carter, a political strategist who was once chief of staff to former premier Alison Redford, notes the PCs and Wildrose have been neck-and-neck in recent polls. They both attract different parts of the electorate, he says, contending that the two parties are too far apart for a merger.

"What are you uniting?" he said. "You're trying to unite a set of people who don't actually fit together. If you are far right-wing, as most of the Wildrosers are, they are ideologically unrelated to the PCs. The Progressive Conservatives are not a right-wing party, they're a centrist party."

Sandra Jansen, the Progressive Conservative MLA for Calgary-North West, has been vocal on social media about the need to keep both parties separate. As a result, Ms. Jansen has become a favourite target of criticism for supporters of the unite-the-right cause.

"They call me a liberal on social media, but the Wildrose doesn't control the word 'conservative,' and their attempts to shame moderate conservatives in Alberta really just exposes them as Social Credit retreads," she said. "I have absolutely no interest in a united right."

While she and Mr. Beazer might have different views on the future of their party, both share the same worry about what a failed merger on the right could do. By merging the PCs and Wildrose, those in the centre and the far-right could split off – instead of uniting the right, they would split it further.

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