Opinion: Upstart party could turn Alberta politics on its head

Alberta voters are about 18 months away from their scheduled shot at choosing the province’s next government, but there’s already more of a political buzz in the province than a beehive in May.

The good people of this maverick province are itching to show the nation whether their first-ever flirtation with the soft-left socialism of the New Democratic Party is more than a one-night stand. Or whether the relentless influx of people from across the country and around the world has truly shifted this once-conservative hotbed into a new political reality.

If one is to believe polls, then Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP is a dead government shuffling its way to the gallows. That certainly seems to be the message from Jason Kenney, who has quite a bit of swagger in his step these days.

Kenney, as politicos know, recently steamrolled his way into leadership of the United Conservative Party, an alliance of the former Wildrose and once-dominant Progressive Conservatives parties. As such, he’s the self-proclaimed saviour of a province that’s been led astray by Utopian promises built on a foundation of economic sand.

In every sense but actual use of the term, his movement is a revival of the “common-sense revolution” that got conservative Mike Harris elected in Ontario in the 1990s. And that election was actually inspired by Canada’s first right-wing rebel-with-a-cause: Alberta’s colourfully wacky (we can say it now) Ralph Klein.

Kenney’s message is resonating, especially in rural and small-town Alberta, where disenchantment with the well-intentioned statist NDP is running deep. Coal towns like Hanna are particularly on a slow burn over the province’s aggressive move to phase out the dirty but venerable fuel that drove their economies.

There is more, however, to this political drama than a simple left-right fight to the finish. In fact, a new interloper has turned affairs into a sort of loveless ménage à trois. This third player has been written off as a perpetual also-ran until recently: the Alberta Party. This time, this upstart movement just might make the next election quite interesting.

Alberta’s once-great Progressive Conservative party was able to hold power for 44 years because it had assembled a big tent of fiscal conservatives and social progressives. When the party finally fractured under its own weight in the election fiasco of 2015, its mojo had pretty much disappeared. Social progressives, like former PC stalwart Sandra Jansen, fled to the NDP. Fiscal (and often social) conservatives threw their lot in with the Wildrose.

The UCP’s “merging” of the right, however, didn’t restore the old family pact. Instead, it provided a home only for true blue conservatives.

The NDP has been equally unsuccessful in its own way. The government’s seeming inability – nay, unwillingness – to curb runaway spending is leading to massive fiscal deficits. That’s turned off those looking for at least a modicum of fiscal responsibility. Many believe Alberta is, barring a miraculous rise in oil prices, on the road to financial ruin.

All of this jockeying has created an opportunity for a party to step into the big space once occupied by the PCs. Could it be the Alberta Party?

It would be foolish to dismiss the party now. Some of the province’s emerging political elite have quietly thrown their support behind it. One is Chima Nkemdirim, chief of staff to Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, who – let’s not forget – was a massive underdog in 2013 when he came from behind and snapped the mayor’s job away from … wait for it … two high-profile conservative ‘front-runners.’

The problem for the Alberta Party has been getting noticed. The leader, Greg Clark, is a pleasant enough guy but he doesn’t display the dynamism that turns heads. In a courageous move, he recently announced he would step aside as leader, triggering a leadership race that the party must hope will create some excitement.

The Alberta Party has a long way to go if it hopes to slip into the great divide created by the polarized left and right. But it has a few things going for it, not least of which are big-tent policies free of the old PC baggage.

Rebuilding a political movement by rebranding has been done before – right next door in Saskatchewan, where the party of Brad Wall rose from the ashes of the discredited Conservatives and formed a highly popular government.

Can a new party bring Alberta’s fractious voters back together? The next 18 months will go a long way toward answering that question.

One thing is certain: it may be a bit premature for Kenney to order new curtains for the premier’s office.

Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.

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