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Alberta conservatives embrace messiah strategy

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Stephen Mandel & Jim Prentice in 2011. Image: David J. Climenhaga

Stephen Mandel, former mayor of Edmonton and a former Progressive Conservative cabinet minister, launched his campaign to lead the Alberta Party last week.

Presumably the sales pitch behind Mandel's campaign is that if Alberta Party members choose him, he'll turn their party into Progressive Conservatives 2.0 and restore the political dynasty Peter Lougheed built to its rightful place atop Alberta.

In this, professional pundits -- conservatives almost to a man plus the occasional woman -- are treating Mandel's campaign just as they treated Jason Kenney's successful campaign last year to lead the Progressive Conservatives 1.0 and convert it into the Wildrose Party 2.0, otherwise known as the United Conservative Party.

Arguably, this is also the same thing the same people were up to when they concluded, back in 2014, that Jim Prentice was the man to solve all the problems of the province's conservative movement and ensure survival of Tory rule in Edmonton for another generation.

Is it just me, or is there a pattern developing here?

As soon as "severely normal" Albertans started dropping hints they’d had enough of the "most conservative province in Canada" being run by Capital-C Conservatives, supporters of Alberta's various conservatively inclined parties started investing themselves in the idea they could find a messiah who would set everything instantly right again.

This urge became pronounced once Albertans made their sentiments absolutely clear on May 5, 2015, by electing a majority NDP Government, something hitherto assumed by everyone to be simply impossible. Quickly thereafter, the conservative consensus was that such a special man was required to restore God to His Heaven and the Tory regime to the Legislature. (And it's always a man, isn't it?)

You can't just blame Rachel Notley for upsetting the Tory applecart, by the way. Despite her abundant political talents, Alberta voters did it all by themselves. What’s more, notwithstanding the self-serving conservative notion the NDP is an "accidental government," the conservative credibility problem had been building for a while.

Finding Tory leaders wasn't always a messiah search, of course. The PCs weren't looking for a messiah when they chose Ed Stelmach, who beat the frontrunners in 2006 to lead the party. But then, in those days, it was simply assumed the PCs were forever.

When Stelmach quit in 2011, they weren't looking for a messiah so much as a pair of experienced hands on the tiller -- hands that belonged to Gary Mar, a former Ralph Klein era cabinet minister favoured by party insiders and caucus members.

But as they had with Stelmach in 2006, PC members -- at least the not-necessarily-aligned Albertans they invited to temporarily join their party to help pick their new leader -- chose Alison Redford instead.

Redford campaigned for the PC leadership as a progressive, and since in those more innocent times choosing the PC leader was supposed to be the true expression of real democracy in Alberta politics since everything afterward was assumed to be a foregone conclusion, we can see now that Albertans' growing fatigue with conservatism was a key part of her unexpectedly successful leadership strategy.

In 2012, despite an unpromising start to the provincial election campaign in which they were given the choice of the supposedly progressive Redford and the clearly more conservative Danielle Smith, voters did the same thing a second time and opted again for the more progressive choice.

Alas, Redford -- who had demons of her own as well as a rebellious, dissatisfied and male-dominated caucus that hadn’t supported her from the get-go -- turned out to be a catastrophe for her party. This was a lost opportunity for Alberta, as she was the brightest premier we may ever have had. It just goes to show, unfortunately, that brains don't necessarily translate into political intelligence.

As an aside, Smith seems to have had similar problems with her caucus, which she said later led to her decision to cross the floor with some of her Wildrose MLAs and join Prentice's PCs. That calculation also turned out to have unintended consequences, too, though whether it can be solely credited for the NDP showing Prentice the door is a matter of opinion.

At any rate -- after Dave Hancock held things together for the few months to let the PCs go through the democratic motions -- Prentice (born in South Porcupine, Ontario near Timmins, raised in Alberta, and come back via the banking industry of Central Canada and the Conservative Cabinet in Ottawa) accepted a messianic mantle and confidently started polishing the Tories up to their previous lustre.

We all know what happened next. Given the choice in the general election of 2015, Alberta voters chose the most progressive option for the third time.

In response, the conservative establishment -- astonished, appalled, disbelieving --turned to another would-be messiah to restore their comfortable assumptions and what they see as their rightful place.

This time they chose Kenney (Ontario born, Saskatchewan raised, and so long an insider of the now-smoke-free backrooms of Ottawa as a Calgary MP that it evidently still seems to him as if it’s the Nineties here in Alberta).

Now that Kenney's charm is wearing thin in some conservative quarters -- although not enough just yet, perhaps, to thwart his ambitions were an election called tomorrow -- Mandel (born in Ontario, but leastways a certifiable Alberta political operator for many years) is getting similar reviews.

There's something charming about the faith of Alberta's conservatives and their media echo chamber have nowadays in the leader (usually from Ontario) that's always about to emerge to save them, and by extension us, from the overstated dangers of budget deficits and for the dubious joys of fiscal austerity and unrestrained excess in the office towers of Calgary.

Accordingly, when Mandel mounted the rostrum in an Edmonton community centre he mouthed a few platitudes suggesting he's less ideological and less partisan than everyone else in the game, and therefore just the man to bring us all together. This, it should be noted, was the Alberta Party’s annoying conceit long before Mandel and his shadowy advisors chose it as a convenient vector for his undimmed ambitions.

Mandel's assumption is obviously that he’s still a big enough name for Albertans to get over their recent disillusionment with the PCs and propel the Alberta Party as Progressive Conservatives 2.0 to big things in 2019, when the next general election is expected.

It is not yet clear whether his ultimate strategic goal is for the Alberta Party to actually form a government or merely create the conditions for a coalition, perhaps followed by a reverse hostile counter-takeover, this time by PCs of the UCP, only with better branding.

That goal may depend on whether the Alberta Party is able to take more votes from the NDP or the UCP, which as yet seems unclear.

Regardless, in the event of a timely ascension by Mandel to the leadership of the Alberta Party, this time we will have two Tory messiahs competing with one another other, as well as a genuinely progressive premier of considerable political talent.

It says something about Rachel Notley that her grip on the imaginations of Albertans is such it provokes this response by her conservative adversaries.

The narrative you will read in the mainstream media, naturally, will be that Notley and the NDP are doomed either way. This might be true, of course, but it is less certain than conservatives want you to think.

Because why? Well, as we have already seen three times, because Albertans!

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

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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