Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science at the University of Calgary and a former campaign manager for conservative parties.
By-elections can be important for many reasons. Tuesday's provincial by-election in Calgary-Greenway was significant because of its impact on the rivalry between the Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Party. It was a close call, but the PCs managed to hold onto this riding, vacated by the untimely death of popular MLA Manmeet Bhullar last November.
This win is a boost for PC members as they head toward their next convention, to be held six weeks from now. At the convention, they will decide what to do about a leadership race. According to the party constitution, it should have been held within six months of former leader Jim Prentice's resignation on May 5, 2015. The convention will have to amend the constitution and then lay out a leadership timetable, meaning the party will not get a new leader until late 2016 or even 2017. Meanwhile, Ric McIver carries on as interim leader.
There can be no serious discussions of possible merger with Wildrose unless and until the PCs get a permanent leader. However, the dynamics of a leadership race are such that candidates will vie with each other in promising to rebuild the PC Party to its former greatness; anyone advocating merger with Wildrose will look like a weakling. After the race, it will be almost impossible for a new leader, coming into office only about two and a half years before the next Alberta election, to pivot quickly and start talking about co-operation with Wildrose.
The most recent successful merger model comes from the experience of the Canadian Alliance and the federal Progressive Conservative Party in 2003. The two party leaders at the time, Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay, respectively, decided a merger was worth pursuing, spoke about it in public, and appointed small teams to carry out negotiations. Both had the backing of most of their MPs as well as the executive councils of their parties.
Once the negotiators were appointed, there was a blackout on publicity. When the negotiators couldn't reach agreement, Mr. Harper broke the deadlock by accepting all the Tory demands. He reasoned, correctly as it turned out, that his priorities were, first, to make a deal (almost any deal), and second, to win the leadership of the new party. Then he could set his own course.
The centrepiece in all of this is leadership. Only permanent leaders, backed by the key people in their party, can negotiate something as momentous as a merger. And even then, there has to be a sense of impending doom if the merger does not take place. That fear was provided in 2003 by new federal Liberal leader Paul Martin, who was expected to lead his party to a landslide victory over the divided forces of the right.
In recent months, various well-meaning outsiders have tried to jump-start merger discussions between the Alberta PCs and Wildrose. They have talked of bottom-up processes, of building relationships, of getting together on ideas before trying to merge organizations.
But this approach hasn't worked in the past and won't work now. Parties merge for one reason only – because they think that otherwise they have no chance of winning. Mr. Harper and Mr. MacKay understood this, enabling the federal merger to take place in 2003.
Combined with the Alberta PCs' leisurely timetable for selecting a permanent leader, the Calgary-Greenway results undermine the prospects of a merger before the next election. The PCs will be buoyed by the victory. Wildrose will find solace in finishing a close second, whereas they were a distant third in the 2015 general election. The New Democrats came fourth in Calgary-Greenway, behind the Liberals.
Now loyalists of both the PCs and Wildrose will think they can run as separate parties and still have a good chance to form a government after the 2019 election. Time will tell whether they're right.