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Opinion Five challenges Jason Kenney faces trying to unite Alberta’s right

Duane Bratt is a professor in the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

The Calgary Stampede officially began on Friday, but there were pre-Stampede events starting on Wednesday. At all of them, political observers were talking about only one thing; former federal Conservative cabinet minister Jason Kenney's plan to unite the right by winning the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party and merging it with the Wildrose Party.

Mr. Kenney's announcement on Wednesday shows his political acumen. It ensured that his announcement would be the political topic of conversation around the multitude of pancake breakfasts and beef-on-a-bun barbecues for the next week and a half.

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Mr. Kenney even has a plan, albeit unorthodox, on how to unite Alberta's political right. Step one is to become leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Step two is to open up merger talks with the Wildrose Party to create a brand new conservative party. Step three is a referendum of existing PC and Wildrose members to ratify the merger. Step four is a leadership race for the new Alberta conservative party – a race that Kenney would contest and expect to win. Step five is to defeat what Mr. Kenney referred to as the "accidental government" of Rachel Notley and her band of "radical ideologues" in the New Democratic Party.

This plan is a clear echo of the process to merge the Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties at the federal level in 2003-04, which involved Mr. Kenney. But despite Mr. Kenney's political skills, despite having a clear plan, and despite a strong appetite among Alberta conservatives to retake power, there are a number of significant pitfalls that could affect this merger. The first is winning the PC leadership. Mr. Kenney is a fiscal and social conservative and the PC party has traditionally been a big-tent party of progressives and conservatives. Already, key progressive elements of the party – current MLA Sandra Jansen, former MLAs and leadership candidates Thomas Lukaszuk and Doug Griffiths – have been scathing in their criticism of Mr. Kenney. Can Mr. Kenney, who clearly would be more comfortable in the Wildrose Party, win over PC members? At its recent annual meeting, more than 1,000 PC members overwhelmingly agreed not to pursue merger talks with Wildrose.

A second challenge is that, under Alberta law, political parties cannot merge their assets. This means that while PC and Wildrose members could create a new conservative party, they cannot take their war chests with them. This obviously makes fundraising a challenge in the period between now and any finalization of merger plans. A third challenge is the memory of Jim Prentice. Mr. Prentice was a former Conservative cabinet minister who came back to Alberta to lead the PC party. He even tried to unite the right by orchestrating a floor crossing by Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and 10 of her colleagues. The floor crossing caused such a backlash that it was a contributing factor in the PC defeat by the NDP in the May, 2015 election.

To be fair, Mr. Kenney has already taken some lessons from the Prentice debacle by declaring his merger intentions as his primary campaign platform, laying his plan out in the open, and emphasizing that party members would ratify any merger agreement. This is a drastic change from the secretive backroom deal that Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith cooked up. A fourth challenge – similar to the third – is that Mr. Kenney is another federal politician coming back home. In the two decades that Mr. Kenney was a federal Conservative, his biggest contribution was his outreach to ethnic communities and wooing them into the Conservative fold. In effect, Mr. Kenney was the architect of the 2011 majority government for the federal Conservatives. However, this was largely done in greater Vancouver and Toronto, not in Alberta. In other words, Mr. Kenney was an Alberta MP who spent most of his time outside of the province. He needs to become reacquainted with his home province and them with him.

The final challenge is timing. The next Alberta election is scheduled for May, 2019. The PC leadership race will be decided next March. That leaves about two years to negotiate a merger agreement, hold a ratification referendum among party members, contest a leadership race for the new conservative party, and prepare to defeat the Notley government. While the plan is straight out of the federal Conservative handbook it is worth remembering, as Tom Flanagan (an adviser to Stephen Harper in 2004) wrote, the Harper Conservatives lost the 2004 election to Paul Martin and the Liberal party, in part, because they were worn out by almost two years of constant campaigning.

Mr. Kenney is a formidable politician who should not be underestimated. The desire by a significant segment of Alberta voters to replace the NDP is also present. Nevertheless, Mr. Kenney's task is a herculean one.

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