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Looking ahead, Alberta Conservative-Wildrose Alliance merger seems inevitable

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Wildrose Alliance Strategist Vitor Marciano

Here's a small wager: Within a decade, probably much less, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance will be one party.

What that party will be called, and who will lead it, depends a bit on the outcome of the next provincial general election. But let’s make a side bet that this new political entity will be called the Conservative Party of Alberta.

If this sounds familiar to you, it should. After all, there's a well-thumbed playbook for the takeover of moderate centre-right parties, those "big tents" like the Alberta Progressive Conservatives that broker the interests of a wide range of supporters, by more radical parties dedicated to moving policy far to the right.

This strategy has been successfully applied to both the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada and the Republican Party in the United States, neither of which much resemble their predecessors in anything but name. Canadian Conservatives were pushed toward their current position by the neo-conservative Reform Party, later known as the Canadian Alliance.

Not so long ago, remember, the great Conservative Party founded by Sir John A. Macdonald, renamed the Progressive Conservatives in 1942, was the sort of party that could stand four-square for the protection of Canadian industry from foreign corporate predators, or even create the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

But that was before the split in the party's support engineered by the Reform Party, and the corporate-backed effort to "unite the right" that followed, resulting in what was in business terms a reverse-takeover by neo-conservative Reformers in December 2003.

Now the days of a progressive national Conservative party are gone forever, and gone with them is the "progressive" in the party’s name.

Today we are seeing the application of the same strategy to the Alberta Progressive Conservatives through the well-funded challenge presented by the Wildrose Alliance. If the Alliance cannot exploit Premier Ed Stelmach's inept leadership sufficiently to form a government, their next goal will be to split the conservative vote enough to justify a call to "unite the right" in Alberta.

In this they are aided by the powerful market-fundamentalist "fifth column" within the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, led by politicians like Finance Minister Ted Morton who favour the same policies as the Wildrose Alliance. It should come as no surprise that this effort is also backed by federal Conservatives and run by political operatives like Vitor Marciano who honed their skills in Prime Minister Stephen Harper's service.

Sadly, they are also helped by the splintered efforts of Alberta's traditional opposition parties, which cannot seem to devise ways to exploit what is sure to be a temporary split on the right.

One goal of the Wildrose strategy is to move the entire political debate as far as possible toward the right -- making market-driven mechanisms for addressing society's problems the only ideas that get serious consideration. Another is to deny conservative voters a centrist alternative, in the hopes they will stick with the names and symbols they are comfortable with, even if those things have come to mean something quite different.

The effect -- as we see clearly in the current debate over the future of health care -- is to push the range of policies contemplated much farther toward privatization than most Albertans are comfortable with.

Opinion polling shows a substantial majority of Albertans want health care that is both publicly funded and publicly delivered. Yet thanks to the Wildrose challenge, public debate now centres on how much privatization we must accept!

In the next Alberta general election, we seem certain to see the ironic spectacle of the Progressive Conservatives, led by people who want to privatize health care, portraying themselves as the defenders of public health insurance against a party with identical policy goals.

In the slightly longer term, however, these two streams of Alberta conservatism are bound to be pushed by their financial backers to become one again.

When they do, all vestiges of the Conservatives’ traditional progressivism will disappear.

This post originally appeared as David Climenhaga’s column in last Friday’s edition of the Saint City News, a weekly newspaper in St. Albert, Alberta. It is also posted on his blog, Alberta Diary.

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