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With Stephen Mandel's resignation and zero legislature seats, Alberta Party faces bleak future

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Departing Alberta Party leader Stephen Mandel. Photo: David J. Climenhaga

So long, Stephen Mandel, at least we can't say we hardly knew ye!

Mandel announced in a news release yesterday he would step down on June 30 as leader of the Alberta Party -- which he took over after an internal coup last year and turned from a vehicle for disaffected Alberta Liberals into a vehicle for disaffected Progressive Conservatives.

As it turned out, the timing was all wrong: a polarized electorate, a province-wide majority of Conservatives determined not to endure another four years of NDP rule, and a left-leaning capital region just as determined not to split the progressive vote to the United Conservative Party's further advantage would probably have doomed the Alberta Party no matter who its leader was.

With slightly different circumstances, though, things could have turned out very differently for the former Edmonton city councillor, three-term mayor, PC health minister and MLA. Love it or hate it, Edmonton's lavish $600-million-plus downtown hockey arena project -- owned by billionaire Daryl Katz and substantially paid for by Edmonton taxpayers -- will now be Mandel's best-known political legacy.

The Alberta Party gambit was Mandel's second comeback bid after he retired from Edmonton civic politics in October 2013. It was marginally less successful than the first, in 2014, when PC premier Jim Prentice appointed him unelected to the health portfolio and he subsequently won a by-election in Edmonton-Whitemud that fall, serving as MLA for five and a half months until the PCs were swept away by the NDP in May 2015.

Nevertheless, in the end, Mandel's undeniable talents as a political pro and fund-raiser didn't amount to the proverbial hill o' beans for the Alberta Party. It had three MLAs going into the April 16 election, albeit two of them floor crossers, and zero after the polls closed on election night.

This prompted some sniping on social media yesterday, but in fairness, Mandel did something no one else could, briefly getting the Alberta Party onto the radar with the province's voters, raising the party's provincial share of the vote from 2.2 per cent in 2015 to 9.1 per cent. Despite his fund-raising talents, though, the party is in financial disarray.

From the perspective of the present, blessed as we are with 20/20 hindsight, it looks very much as if the Alberta Party would have been better off if it had stuck with its previous leader, capable former Calgary-Elbow MLA Greg Clark, who was pushed aside by Mandel's backers despite having a credible chance of re-election if he'd remained leader. Leastways, no one can claim the party would have done even worse with Clark at the helm.

So yesterday's development sees Mandel return to a fretful retirement and the Alberta Party facing a bleak future with its supporters unsure if they're supposed to be Red Tories or fiscally conservative Liberals, or if they have enough money to serve either constituency.

You could argue the Red Tory-Blue Grit thing is a recipe for a big-tent small-c conservative party like the now-defunct PCs, but recent developments suggest that in a fiscally, socially, and even regionally polarized province, it's actually more like a formula for permanent failure.

The search is now on for an interim Alberta Party leader. There will be a proper leadership race eventually, which will generate a few headlines, so the ennui will continue a little longer. After that, I predict, pfffft.

As for Mandel, if his wife can't stand having him around the house, there's always the municipal election in October 2021. The Senate "election" on the same date is out, unfortunately, since Mandel will be 76 by then and Senators must retire at 75.

In the mean time, the Windsor, Ontario native who received much of his university education in the United States will have to satisfy himself in the ceremonial role of chancellor of Edmonton's tiny Concordia University, a former Lutheran college founded in 1921 that today has fewer than 2,000 students.

It's hard to believe he will find that very engaging or will be able to resist the temptation to make a nuisance of himself.

Edmonton-Glenora NDP MLA Sarah Hoffman, another former health minister, is an alumna of that institution.

Ontario Court of Appeal upholds federal carbon tax; Alberta proclaims law breaking public sector contracts

Also yesterday in Alberta politics...

  • The Court of Appeal for Ontario upheld the federal government's right to impose a carbon tax, rejecting arguments made by the government of Conservative Premier Doug Ford. In a similar case last month, the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal made a similar decision. This preponderance of legal opinion, however, is unlikely to stop Alberta from pursuing a similarly doomed challenge because the coordinated effort by Conservative provincial governments is a way to use provincial tax dollars to campaign politically against the Liberal federal government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The legal effectiveness of such arguments is increasingly obvious, as is the unethical nature of using of tax funds this way. The jury remains out on its political effectiveness.
  • Bill 9, the unconstitutional legislation by Premier Jason Kenney's United Conservative Party government delaying collective bargaining and arbitration for tens of thousands of public employees until the end of October, received royal assent and was proclaimed into law. The delay specifically breaks provisions in several public sector unions' current collective agreements. Background on the motivation and strategy behind the Public Sector Arbitration Deferral Act is found here.
  • Remember when Jason Kenney accused the NDP of lying about the state of the province's books, claiming the province's finances were a worse mess than the former government had said? Turns out that what the NDP significantly underestimated was the amount of progress they’d made reducing the deficit. The latest government statistics show the deficit was more than $2 billion smaller than last year's forecast by the NDP. Not a lie; just caution. The UCP has no shame, though, so they continued to complain about NDP overspending and offered no apologies or acknowledgements for Mr. Kenney's disingenuous rhetoric.

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 Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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