Whether Cody Johnston anticipated the reaction his Facebook post would provoke, we don't know. But, being an openly gay staff member in a fairly ultraconservative party such as Alberta's Wildrose, he likely had an idea.
Recently, Mr. Johnston announced he would be walking in the Edmonton Pride parade. The news incited a homophobic torrent from some party members. One said Wildrose didn't support his type of "lifestyle," which another called "sinful." One said Mr. Johnston needed to make clear his decision was not "Wildrose approved."
To his credit, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean denounced the bigoted slurs and the people behind them. Although it is not clear whether these members will be banished from the party, they should be.
For the more enlightened Wildrose members, the affair stirred up painful memories. It was during the provincial election of 2012, with the party ahead in the polls, that an old blog post from a Wildrose candidate was unearthed. In it, the man suggested gay people would ultimately burn in a "lake of fire."
The only thing that went up in smoke was the party's chances of victory.
It would be easy to write off the current controversy as nothing more than the inane utterances of a few party rednecks. Yet there is an unsettling feeling that these close-minded yahoos speak for more than just a few. Former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith was constantly undermined by social-religious conservatives in the party who were uncomfortable with her support for the LGBTQ community.
There is a reason Mr. Jean and Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney have not taken part in the Pride parade themselves: They both know it would hurt them politically, which is sad and depressing.
Both politicians are in the process of trying to combine their conservative forces under a new political banner: the United Conservative Party. It is a merger that still needs to be approved by the members of each party, which is no sure thing. But if it does go ahead, it has the potential to fracture Alberta politics like never before.
The enmity between the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose runs deep. If a merger does occur, you can be assured not all Wildrose members will be willing to join the new coalition. Those of a particularly strong social-conservative bent could well try to establish a new home on the right.
However, the greatest movement could come among progressives, those liberal-minded folks who, in the past, voted for a Tory agenda that was fiscally conservative but socially tolerant. And there is a healthy segment of Albertans who fear that a new conservative party led by Mr. Jean or Mr. Kenney will not be as broad-minded as previous Tory administrations.
As such, there is a movement afoot to turn the one-seat Alberta Party into a new, centrist political force. That could be a tall order, especially under the party's current leader, Greg Clark, a thoroughly decent human being who lacks the dynamism and charisma necessary to front such a bold venture.
The push for a moderate option between the New Democratic Party on the left and the (potentially) United Conservative Party, and whatever else there may be on the right, is being led by a new political action group called Alberta Together. Former PC party president Katherine O'Neill, a formidable organizer who is credited with helping rebuild the provincial Tories after the disastrous 2015 provincial election, is the group's executive director.
In an ideal world, those hoping the Alberta Party can become a viable middle-of-the-road alternative would be ecstatic with someone such as Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson as leader. If not now, then in the future. He has profile and charisma and casts a moderate image. Also, his jump to the provincial stage seems inevitable.
Regardless of whether it's Mr. Iveson, Mr. Clark or someone else, it would seem the Alberta Party will be a far greater force in 2019 than it has been in the past. If, for some reason, the merger between Wildrose and the PCs doesn't occur, suddenly you are looking at a plethora of legitimate options that could dramatically change the face of Alberta politics.
Sometimes all it takes is one party making unexpected inroads to fundamentally change the calculus in a legislature. And if Albertans want to know what can happen when that occurs, all they need to do is look across the mountains to B.C. to find out.