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The Harper-Wildrose alliance: The elephant in Alberta's conservative room

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Vitor "Vic" Marciano

There's an elephant in the room whenever Albertans of a conservative political bent get together in the same place: the extensive and committed relationship between the far-right Wildrose Party and the equally radical neo-Con federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

Neither right-wing Alberta party really wants to talk publicly about it, but it can't please the Progressive Conservative government under Premier Alison Redford, which sees itself with justice as the province’s natural governing party, to watch federal support and personnel flowing to the Wildrose Party under former Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith.

Just some of the names associated with this Harper-Wildrose alliance range from Tom Flanagan, once the PM's right-hand ideological advisor and now the Wildrose Party's campaign chairman, to a whole raft a smaller fry, among them, in no particular order:

-    Vitor Marciano, former federal party chair and Wildrose executive director, now Wildrose candidate in Alberta's so-called Senate election and apparently something like the Wildrose campaign's chief cook and bottle washer.
-    Ryan Hastman, federal Conservative candidate in the Edmonton-Strathcona riding last year and now Wildrose candidate coach -- an appropriate position for the only Alberta Conservative candidate to be beaten by a New Democrat in 2011.
-    Andrew Constantinidis, former riding president for Rob Anders, the sleepy Calgary West MP and Harper loyalist, now nominated as the Wildrose candidate in the provincial Calgary West riding.
-    Tim Dyck, another member of Anders's constituency brain trust, now the Wildrose candidate in Calgary Bow.
-    Danny Hozak, once the federal Tory constituency association president for the Vegreville-Lloydminster riding, now the Wildrose candidate for Vermilion-Lloydminster.
-    William McBeath, former operations director for Tory minister Diane Finley in Ottawa, now Wildrose communications director.
-    Candice Malcolm, once executive assistant to Smith, later communications aide to Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, and now back as some kind of Wildrose operative.
-    James Johnson, former Alberta regional organizer for the Harper Conservatives, now chief researcher for the Wildrose Legislative caucus.
-    Hamish Marshall, a former pollster for the federal Conservatives who is now Chief Research Officer of Abingdon Research, creator of a controversial Wildrose push poll.

Through people like Marshall, Harper's Conservatives and Smith's Wildrosers also rely on many of the same political contractors to do their work -- specifically Abingdon Research, but also such companies as Go Newclear Productions, the Vancouver digital communications agency associated with the "Ethical Oil" echo chamber, and Rack9, the Edmonton demon-dialling company tied in news reports to the federal robo-calls scandal.

Indeed, a case can be made that at the strategic and technical levels, the federal and provincial neo-Con parties are virtually interchangeable.

This is a big change from the not-so-distant past when it was Alberta Conservatives at the provincial and federal levels who were essentially the same people.

In many ways it mirrors the conditions that presaged the hostile reverse takeover of the old Progressive Conservative Party of Canada by the neo-Con Reform Party that is now led by Harper, who like Smith is a radical market fundamentalist.

There can be little doubt about why the Harper Conservatives are working so hard for a Wildrose victory: They see Smith's party as the key to the "reforms," especially in commercialization of public health care, they need a province to enact in order to force privatization onto health systems across the country. In this strategy, a Wildrose government would open the door to privatization, the trade deal with the United States would force the same thing on other provinces, and the Harper Tories could stand aside and say "there was nothing we could do!"

Naturally, none of this is likely to make Redford's Conservatives very happy with Harper's neo-Cons, at least those Conservatives in the premier's corner who cannot be justly described as fifth columnists for the Wildrose Party, of which there are surely a few. Among Premier Redford’s loyalists, the sense of betrayal with the federal namesakes must run deep.

On the other side, anger at Redford's "Red Tory" credentials and some of her past positions fuel similar resentment. Since she challenged the embarrassing Anders for his nomination in 2003, it should be no surprise to see federal Tories now helping the Wildrose side come from Anders's constituency organization. This includes Constantinidis, the man aggressively challenging Redford's hand-picked candidate in the riding, former AHS Chair Ken Hughes.

Back in 2003, Anders dismissed Redford as "a feminist lawyer" and correctly predicted he'd have no trouble defeating her.

While a case can be made that the Progressive Conservatives under Redford and the Wildrose Party under Smith are two political expressions of the same ideology differing only over how best to implement the same program, the competition between the two parties has the potential to create a lasting rift.

As a result, depending on what happens in the next provincial general election, which the Edmonton Journal suggested yesterday would be called next Monday, this situation could have profound implications for the future continued success of conservatism in Alberta.

Naturally, it has big implications for its opponents, too.

As things stand at the moment, too much success for either of these two conservative parties poses an existential threat to the other.

As blogger Dave Cournoyer has argued articulately in the past, expectations have been raised so high for Smith's party, that anything short of its becoming the Official Opposition could spell its demise.

And if the Wildrose were to form the government, it's said here that PC remnants in the Legislature would soon be absorbed into the far-right Wildrose ranks, and the Reform-style reverse takeover plotted by the radical right would be complete.

If both parties end up in the Legislature in considerable numbers, it may take a while for conservative MLAs to sort out which right-wing party they really support, but when the dust has settled the divisions are certain to be profound and the feelings of resentment bitter.

So, if a strong progressive leader were to emerge on the progressive left -- albeit a big if given the past performance of Alberta’s opposition parties -- the opportunity could just present itself for the first time in Alberta history since the United Farmers lost power in 1935 for a genuinely progressive party to hold power in Alberta.

At the same time, it is safe to say that if Redford is re-elected, as still seems very likely, her government will not be as simpatico with the Conservatives in Ottawa as Albertans have come to assume would be the case in the past.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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