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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.

Lid's still on the unite-the-right soup the Wildrose Party's leader is cooking up, but there are hints about the recipe

| January 10, 2017
Photo: Sergei ~ 5of7/flickr

As 2017 begins, we still await the details of Wildrose Party Leader Brian Jean's alternative plan to unite the right.

All we're supposed to know is that it presumably involves him, and not Jason Kenney or some other nominal Progressive Conservative, leading the charge against the NDP government of Premier Rachel Notley in the next provincial general election.

The Wildrose Party is still cooking up their launch strategy, and their only comment is that they won't yet comment. Naturally, idle hands being the Devil's workshop, this leads to idle speculation on the part of bloggers.

To wit: it is said here we can catch a glimpse of the broad outlines of Jean's thinking from a "completely confidential" email he sent to some of his closest advisers the night after the Liberal Party of Canada led by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau knocked off former prime minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives in the 2015 federal election.

It must have been a bleak moment. The Wildrose Party was still reeling from the unexpected NDP victory in the May 5, 2015, provincial election -- hardly an endorsement of their platform or their political skills. That blow was all the more painful, I imagine, in that so many commentators had imagined they would be the beneficiaries of the obvious public dissatisfaction with the PCs, then led by the late Jim Prentice.

No sooner had the Wildrosers suffered through that catastrophe than the federal politician and party had fallen at the feet of the Liberal they hated the most: Justin Trudeau, who for months the target of their jibes he was just not ready.

The dream of another father and son, Ernest and Preston Manning, of a Canada reduced to a U.S.-style two-party system dominated by conservative instincts and edging ever further to the right had apparently just been blown to smithereens by the young man they'd disparaged for months for being a drama teacher.

Despite those setbacks, Jean's imagination was churning with ideas and brimming with optimism on the day after.

In the memo, entitled "Monday's Federal Election," Jean started by setting the scene: "Liberals federally. NDP provincially. People are afraid. Let's use that to raise tons of cash, kill the pcs and get new members."

He called for rebranding the stale old unite-the-right idea, perhaps as "Unite the Fiscal Right" -- an idea that may sound a little bloodless, but anticipated the possibility that at least one competing player on the unite-the-right scene would turn out to be a social conservative with attitudes bound to trouble almost as many modern Alberta conservatives as voters further to the left.

In addition, Jean proposed the alternative "Unite Common Sense Fiscal Conservatives" as a slogan, which sounds a little too much like something NDP supporters affiliated with the United Church might come up with to appeal very much to Wildrose foot soldiers.

The memo suggested giving PC members Wildrose "trade ins" on their memberships -- an idea alert readers will recall the party tried without gaining much traction. Jean also proposed a province-wide tour with meetings of invited PC and Wildrose members to be chaired by himself, which was also tried.

Other ideas put forward in the Oct. 20, 2015, memo have yet to be implemented, or at least much talked about, and could well form all or part of Jean's "common sense" effort to unite the right. These included:

  • Letting members vote to choose a new party name or keep the old one. This may be easier said than done because of Elections Alberta's rules against choosing names too much like those of other parties. But sources close to the party say a new name remains a key part of the 2017 plan.
  • Picking the strongest policies from both parties and merging them into one Wildrose constitutional document whether the PCs like it or not. This would provide an opportunity to "clean up our policies in one shot,” Jean observed revealingly. He also noted: "We don't need them to agree on anything and I really believe most people from PC background will be relieved to get rid of old boys club leaders."
  • Going negative on the PCs. "We should even do a 'why would you want the PC leaders that took us here,'" he mused. "Let's just steal their customers. … Discourage anyone from being a member. Be ashamed to be a PC. Rip it up. Open our doors both to MLAs from PC and members. With logical steps a new party will have to go thru."

The last point may have made sense back in October 2015. But, as the saying goes, he who hesitates is lost. Alas for Jean and his Wildrose loyalists, that train has now left the platform, thanks to the younger Manning and Harper, who keep turning up like the proverbial bad pennies. Not only is the train gone, of course, but Kenney is aboard, along with his portmanteau full of bad social conservative ideas.

Jean may seem safer than the social conservative, social media obsessed Kenney. That may be why more conservatively minded Albertans gave him an edge over Kenney in pollster Janet Brown's recent public opinion survey of which of the two potential leaders of the right has the most support.

Jean's problem remains Jean's party. As Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid observed back in May 2016, "your average urban PC supporter views Wildrose adherents as scary right-wing nutbars, the demented heirs of Social Credit."

Of course, with Kenney at the head of the PCs -- united with the Wildrose Party or on his own -- those urban PC voters might quickly start to view the Tories in much the same light. Which is why, despite the strong conservative results in Brown's poll, public attitudes could change as a provincial election nears.

We'll see about that, just as we'll eventually see the details of Jean's refined thinking about how to unite the right under his banner.

Either that, or the Wildrose leader will change his mind and decide after all to run to be mayor of Fort McMurray in October.

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

Photo: Sergei ~ 5of7/flickr

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