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Alberta Diary

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David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. His 1995 book, A Poke in the Public Eye, explores the relationships among Canadian journalists, public relations people and politicians. He left journalism after the strike at the Calgary Herald in 1999 and 2000 to work for the trade union movement. Alberta Diary focuses on Alberta politics and social issues.

Uniting the right: Is Wildrose leader starting to wonder, 'With friends like these, who needs enemies?'

| February 10, 2016
Brian Jean

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All of a sudden, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean seems less than enthused by some of the people who are jumping onto his party's "unite the right" bandwagon.

On Monday, the Alberta Opposition leader sent an email to Wildrose supporters reminding them of his oft-expressed wish to "unite the right people and the right ideas" on the right side of the province's political spectrum.

But it seems as if some of the right-wing people now talking about getting together to try to defeat Alberta's NDP Government are not necessarily the right people, and don't necessarily have the right ideas either, in Jean's estimation.

"Some organized groups, outside of either the Wildrose or PC grassroots, are trying to commandeer and direct these conversations," the Wildrose leader said in his email to supporters, as was noted in this space in passing yesterday.

"This misguided attempt to shortcut deliberate, meaningful, and personal conversations between party members has been attempted before," he said. "It was a disastrous elite-driven top-down 'unification' attempt by MLAs that ultimately led to the NDP majority.

"Please do not allow the allure of a short cut, presented by outsiders, to derail what must be a transparent, grassroots-driven process," Jean wrote. (Emphasis added.)

What's going on here? Who is Jean talking about?

One of the groups at the forefront of the Opposition leader's mind this week was the so-called Alberta Prosperity Fund, a self-described "Super PAC" announced last November by a former Wildrose fund-raiser named Barry McNamar to finance political activities that are not restricted by Alberta campaign financing laws.

For weeks, the group has been announcing on its Facebook page the establishment of committees to deal with operations and finance, communications, outreach, fundraising, policy and research, and naming people to serve on them, some of them quite well known in conservative circles.

As of yesterday, Alberta Prosperity Fund and Advocacy Ltd., the non-profit corporation behind the organization, had two registered directors. They are McNamar, who runs it out of an address in a south Calgary residential suburb, and Calgary resident Samantha Leclerc, who is also McNamar's executive assistant in his role as VP of operations for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, a Fraser-Institute-style right-wing think-tank based in Winnipeg.

The Alberta Prosperity Fund was clearly involved in a meeting that took place later Monday evening in the Calgary bedroom suburb of Cochrane. Jean had to be aware of that when he mailed out his epistle to the Wildrosers.

According to a CBC report, the Cochrane meeting was led by former Progressive Conservative justice minister Jonathan Denis. Also playing leading roles were Bruce McAllister, a former Wildrose MLA who crossed the floor of the House to join the PCs back in December 2014, and former right-wing talk radio DJ Dave Rutherford, who has been acting as the Alberta Prosperity Fund's spokesperson.

Now think about this from Jean's perspective.

First, there's obviously heavy influence in this new unite-the-right effort by former PCs like Denis, and for that matter McAllister.

Clearly, a key goal of Jean's version of the unification project is to merge the two parties on the Wildrose Party's market-fundamentalist terms, and not to be too much influenced by the PCs more pragmatic, centrist traditions, which are anathema to many in the Wildrose base.

Second, some of the people involved are not necessarily the kind who are going to impress voters.

Denis resigned as justice minister weeks before the May 5, 2015, general election when legal proceedings between himself and his estranged wife became public. On election night he came third in his Calgary-Acadia constituency, beaten by a then-unknown New Democrat, Brandy Payne, who is now associate minister of health. Payne famously spent $240 on her campaign; Denis spent $85,000.

McAllister took part in that "disastrous elite-driven top-down 'unification' attempt" fomented by Preston Manning that Jean was talking about in his letter. He and the others who followed former party leader Danielle Smith into premier Jim Prentice's PC caucus are still viewed as traitors by many Wildrosers. On May 5, he was defeated in his Chestermere-Rocky View riding east of Calgary by Wildroser Leela Aheer.

Third, like any Canadian political leader, there is no doubt Jean would prefer small donors in particular who have not reached their legislated maximum contributions give their money directly to his party and not be tempted by competing recipients.

Even with wealthy donors who have maxed out their direct contributions, Jean should be nervous about a group his party can't control, and which might come up with ideas that harm the party's strategy.

In this, his reaction would be no different from those of frustrated Alberta NDP and Liberal leaders when some unions bought advertisements attacking the government in 2006, resulting in the opposite outcome to that they intended, helping premier Ed Stelmach get handily elected in 2008.

Finally, from Jean's personal perspective, any merger that isn't handled just right could result in a wide-open contest to find a leader for the united party -- one in which there is no guarantee he would emerge the winner.

To complicate matters from Jean's perspective, there are at least two other unite-the-right efforts now being cooked up by former PC Party officials and fundraisers. It seems that every additional day this effort takes, the more complicated it gets!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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