Jen Gerson is a contributing columnist for The Globe and Mail.
I had a run-in with a card-carrying member of the United Conservative Party prior to election day in Alberta – a sensible, establishment, man-in-good-standing type.
This person, who shall remain unnamed to protect that very good standing, had questions about Danielle Smith, certainly; further, he noted that the party’s signature electoral promises, which included income tax breaks, and legislation to impose a referendum on future tax increases – are poor policy.
But, well, the conservatives were his team. And, besides, Ms. Smith won’t last long, right? He predicted the far-righter faction that managed to win her the leadership would turn on her within 18 months. Soon, the sensible sort, led by the usual collection of establishment money and lobbyists, would replace her with someone more palatable to their worldview and aesthetics.
“Like who?” I asked. Oh, someone like Travis Toews, he suggested – Mr. Toews, who managed to lose to Ms. Smith on the sixth ballot despite garnering three times as many endorsements from caucus. He has since stepped down from politics and didn’t run in Monday’s election.
Well, if not Mr. Toews, perhaps Jason Kenney would come back, he suggested. Yes, indeed, because that went so well the last time. Mr. Kenney rode into Alberta on a pick-up truck and helium hopes. He lasted three years and 164 days, and who can look at his tenure and think anything except that the job of Alberta’s Conservative premier is a poisoned chalice. Shiny, sure, but how many highly qualified and brilliant individuals are eager to sip the cup?
“So, who?” I asked again, increasingly incredulous. “Your people didn’t show up to the leadership review. They couldn’t get a ‘sensible’ candidate to win in the last leadership race; and if the party does kick out Smith, all of the incentives are toward an even more right-leaning replacement.”
That conversation happened before Ms. Smith won a comfortable majority. Alberta’s conservatives are riding the dragon now, and most of the moderates within her caucus fell off its back on Monday night. Ms. Smith may have adopted a more centrist tone since becoming leader, and she is capable of listening, showing humility, and moderating her stance; but the party and its leadership are beholden to a populist base, one that is increasingly organized, and willing to demand concessions on policy and tone.
My companion didn’t seem to agree with this analysis, or perhaps, wouldn’t accept it. But there are a lot of UCP loyalists who came out to elect the party again despite similar reservations.
Because, as one friend put it, the centrists have not come to terms with the reality: The soldiers “have voted with their feet.” The moderates are generals without troops.
The great civil war that has torn the conservative movement in Alberta asunder for the past 15 years must now be declared over. Wildrose won. That rural-libertarian faction is now directing the foot soldiers in the big conservative tent. The party is led by a former Wildrose leader, surrounded by a Wildrose brain trust, and energized by a cadre emboldened by the zeal of victory.
All of the energy of this party now belongs to groups like Take Back Alberta, once an insurgency, now a faction that put forward some of the party’s most controversial candidates. Individuals affiliated with the group now hold half of the UCP’s board, and there’s no sign that their ambitions have been sated.
Meanwhile, Rob Anderson, one of the key architects of the Free Alberta Strategy – which calls on Alberta to consider independence as a final resort if Ottawa fails to kowtow to measures that it admitted would foment a constitutional crisis – now works in the Premier’s office.
By comparison, I can see neither energy nor momentum among the centrist set, and no reason to believe that anybody will materialize from the wooden panels of Calgary’s best steakhouses to restore order, caution incrementalism, or sue for peace.
During the election, left-leaning Progressive Conservatives spoke against the Smith-led UCP; former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk and Doug Griffiths among them. Most of the sort of people who fought for premiers past like Peter Lougheed, or Ed Stelmach, or even Alison Redford are either dead, retired, neutered, complacent, or simply silent.
In this election, Alberta has affirmed itself as a two-party province; go centre-left with the NDP, or follow that dragon of right-wing populism wherever it may lead, good or bad. But permit no illusions. This is not your father’s PC party.