Richard Starke, it turns out, is not just a nice guy, he's a principled one as well.
This is not to say, I should hasten to add, that I ever thought Starke, MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster, former Tory cabinet minister and candidate for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party, was anything but principled.
Still, now that Jason Kenney's double reverse hostile takeover of the PC Party by the Wildrose Party last spring, and then of the Wildrose Party by the PCs last Saturday, is all but complete, one imagines MLAs from the two conservative parties are under enormous pressure to knuckle under and behave themselves. Good behaviour, of course, being in this case defined by Kenney and his minions.
Moreover, despite his obvious decency, Starke is just as clearly not an unambitious man, as the retired Prairie veterinarian's willingness last winter and spring to run for the PC leadership against Kenney, a former Harper government cabinet minister who is not an MLA, made clear.
So if there was an opportunity for a future high-profile cabinet portfolio, I had thought Starke was likely to stick around to see what would happen.
But Starke didn't stick around. He said yesterday he has told the Speaker of the Legislature he intends to continue to sit as a Progressive Conservative MLA as long as there's a Progressive Conservative Party. If it ceases to exist, he'll sit as an Independent.
That Starke only waited until the first available business day to tell us about his plans paints a vivid picture of the real state of conservative merger movement after what Postmedia's Don Braid, apparently letting his enthusiasm get the better of him, hailed as "a massive consensus." Braid's headline writer did him one better, accurately reflecting the tone of the column: The decision, the headline hyperventilated, was "a massive and historic vote for conservative unity in Alberta."
It wasn't just Braid. All day Sunday and Monday supporters of the "United Conservative Party" merger and their media auxiliary were crowing about the effect the combined new UCP caucus would have on the NDP Government of Premier Rachel Notley. (Not much, actually, seeing as the electoral math of a majority government won't change at all.)
The 22 Wildrose MLAs plus the seven PCs would add up to 29, we were repeatedly reminded. Well, make that 28, now that Starke has decided to bail out.
Monday morning, he issued the following statement his Facebook page, which deserves to be quoted in its entirety:
"After much consideration, I have decided that I will not join the United Conservative Party Caucus," Starke wrote.
"When I made the decision to seek elected office in 2011, I promised the constituents of Vermilion-Lloydminster that I would hold to values and principles consistent with Progressive Conservatism -- the values espoused by Peter Lougheed that first drew me to the Progressive Conservative party when I was in my teens.
"In both 2012 and 2015 I was nominated by the Vermilion-Lloydminster Progressive Conservative Association as their candidate, and elected by the people of Vermilion-Lloydminster as a Progressive Conservative MLA.
"At the conclusion of the PC Leadership campaign I was assured that my voice and those of the people who supported me would be welcomed by the new leadership. I took that assurance in good faith. My experience, and that of many like-minded party members who have left or been driven from the party, is that our views are not welcome, and that the values and principles we believe in will not be part of the new party going forward." (Emphasis added.)
"I have no way of knowing whether the leadership and policies of the new party will align with the values and principles I ran and was elected on. Without certainty in that knowledge I cannot, in good conscience, sit as a member of that party.
"I have informed the Speaker and the Legislative Assembly Office of my intentions. My first responsibility remains unchanged -- to represent the people of Vermilion-Lloydminster with the commitment and integrity they deserve." He concluded: "I am honoured to continue this endeavour."
For this, you can count on it, Starke will be viciously excoriated by Kenney’s followers for "disloyalty" to the conservative movement -- although what he has decided to do, arguably, demonstrates the opposite.
UCP supporters may also say that one MLA is just one MLA, which is true enough. Surely, though, it is a symptom of the strains below the surface in the post-progressive era of Alberta conservatism that a respected MLA and former cabinet member like Starke would walk away from the party at this hour.
He elaborated a little on his reasons to the CBC, citing Kenney's hostility to gay-straight alliances in schools, his refusal to take part in the Edmonton Pride Parade, and statements on social media from PC Party President Len Thom that compared the province's social studies curriculum to Hitler Youth indoctrination.
"As a veterinarian, at some point if there are so many clinical signs, you have to make a diagnosis," Starke observed bluntly.
Presumably all this means the PCs under Kenney wouldn't have chosen Starke as interim UCP leader in any circumstances, but they did (as suggested here they might) choose Nathan Cooper, MLA for Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills and a former Wildrose staffer, for the job. Alas, Dr. Starke might have added Mr. Cooper's past role as spokesperson for a social conservative group opposed to what it called the "homosexual agenda" to his list of concerns.
Now, UCP supporters may argue that a leadership race is yet to take place, and Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who lately has been trying to define himself as the candidate of the party's progressives, will be running in it, so nothing is decided. You can believe that if you wish. But is said here Mr. Jean is no match for the Kenney juggernaut, which will crush him this fall just as it crushed Starke, Stephen Khan and Sandra Jansen last spring.
Premier Notley is another matter, of course, and while it is considered heresy in conservative and journalistic circles in Alberta to say so just now, a conservative party led by the baggage-laden Kenney and abandoned by respected Tories like Starke is not a slam dunk to defeat Notley and her New Democrats.
As the determinedly right-wing Kelly McParland of the National Post, of all people, admitted, "it's no given that Alberta's United Conservatives will manage to reclaim all the best offices at the legislature in Edmonton come 2019."
McParland's reasoning is the usual conservative elitist pishposh about how voters are so dumb they can be "bought with their own money." They're not, of course.
But they might -- just might -- ignore the PACed up big-money guys now dancing the Frankenparty fandango and recognize they're getting pretty good government in very difficult circumstances from Premier Notley and her disciplined NDP caucus.
McParland moans: "What if Notley beats the united Tories anyway?" He calls this possibility "scary." In light of what the UCP seems to represent, many Albertans may be starting to see this differently. Perhaps Starke is one of them.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.