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Who is the best Alberta Tory choice for the coming Wildrose Apocalypse?

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Jack Layton

What Alberta's foundering Progressive Conservative dynasty needs to do now is pick the leadership candidate most like Jack Layton! Who could that be?

They need to do this because, as Dave Cournoyer, author of the Daveberta.ca blog, shrewdly suggested the other day, the PC Party could now be choosing the next Opposition leader.

After the catastrophe of Alison Redford's leadership -- from which many chickens are likely still free-ranging out there on the Prairie before they come home to roost -- Cournoyer's observation may be an optimistic one from the PC perspective.

The real question, more likely, is: "Could the PC Party be choosing the next leader of the Alberta Legislature's third party?" Even the Globe and Mail is starting to agree with this assessment!

Which brings us back to the memory of Jack Layton, who led the fourth party in the House of Commons to the brink of forming the government. We could all feel the Orange Wave in the spring of 2011, even here in die-hard Tory Alberta.

Alas, Layton is dead and it sure doesn't feel that way any more. So it would be fair to also say what Canada's New Democratic Party needs is a leader like Jack Layton, too, but that'll have to be a story for another day. In the mean time, let's talk about Alberta and the PC dynasty, which now appears to be in its death spiral.

When I say the PCs need a leader like Jack Layton, I’m not talking about Layton's ideology or philosophy. That would be a bridge too far for any "conservative" party in this neoliberal era, even a "progressive" one. I’m talking about Layton's will to fight and his ability to take the long view and offer strategic leadership based on the idea victory could be realistically pursued even if it wasn’t possible the next day.

In the NDP's case, this required careful balancing between those who saw the party as their church, and for whom doctrine was thus more important than victory, and those who so craved victory they were willing to destroy the party in order to save it.

In the Alberta PCs' case, if they indeed lose the next election but emerge with some power in opposition, they will need a leader who believes the continued survival of an even slightly Progressive Conservative Party is worth fighting for.

The Redford PCs were often accused -- accurately -- of being no different from the Opposition Wildrose Party in any way except their remarkable ineptitude. If the PC Party is to survive after the Wildrose Apocalypse, it will not only have to be different, but be seen to be different.

On the tactical level, the Alberta PCs would need a leader who, also like Layton, can be effective in Question Period … even if another, larger party caucus leads the Opposition.

And given the character of Alberta society, they will need a leader who can project a sunny face (even if that is only a matter of theatrical legerdemain) and create an image for the party that is at once upbeat and serious.

There are only two politicians in Alberta I can think of right now who do this well. One is Rachel Notley, who is running for the leadership, but not the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party. Notley, of course, is campaigning to be the leader of the Alberta NDP and, realistically now, the leader of the Opposition.

The other is Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose Party. Smith, of course, already has a leadership job.

So, given the need for the leader as much like Jack Layton as possible if the PCs are to survive the electoral cataclysm they face, who of the three current candidates would be the best?

Not Ric McIver! McIver is a member of the fire and brimstone camp of conservatism -- theologically, by the sound of it, as well as philosophically. His electoral persona is about control (except of booze and speeders), austerity and social conservative dog whistles. To attract social conservative support, a candidate must demonstrate an abiding faith society is going to hell in a hand basket and needs to be saved from itself. You know: He that spareth the rod hateth his province.

This stream of conservatism also runs strong in the Wildrose Party, despite its leader's cheerful demeanour. It is not likely to appeal to small-c economic conservatives not enraptured with social conservative dogmas. So a leader that came from this point of the political compass would be likely to ensure the PCs' irrelevance.

Nor does Jim Prentice seem like the right leader for a PC Party in opposition.

Now, Prentice strikes me as a fine man, personally upright, smart and successful. A self-made millionaire, a winner…

And a winner is how he sees himself, too, you can be sure. But Prentice's undoubted skills are all about governing. He's far from an inspiring speaker -- he’d be hopeless in Question Period – and here's betting he wouldn’t have a clue in a carload what to do without a hand on the tiller. I doubt he has the stick-to-itiveness to hang in there if he's not the boss. In addition, as fiscal conservative, he too will be hard to distinguish from a Wildrose government.

My prediction: If the Tories lose the election with Prentice at the helm, it won't be long before he vanishes like Judge Crater. All the right things will be said about taking responsibility for the defeat, yadda-yadda, but one way or the other Prentice will never stand up to ask a question from the west side of the Legislature.

For Tories to bet on Prentice they must believe he will win the next election. Given their history, it will be hard for them not to make this assumption. What's more, it could happen. He'll have two years to make it so. But the odds are long. And if he doesn't, and then fails to stick around, the party is likely finished.

Which brings us to Thomas Lukaszuk. I'm not sure if Lukaszuk has the long-range strategic abilities to bring the PCs back after they’ve actually gone over the falls in a barrel, but he might. He certainly speaks to a vision of the party that emphasizes its progressive side -- even if he didn't act that way in cabinet. (His story nowadays: It was all Redford's fault … I didn't want to cut that education funding.)

He is aggressive, like a bulldog at times, so he could make his presence felt in QP, even from the position of the leader of the third -- or perhaps the fourth -- party. And he is charming, able to project a sunny disposition -- at least, if he can be made to stay off Twitter late at night.

And the nicely coiffed Lukaszuk looks young (he's 45 to McIver's 55 and Prentice's 58.). Plus he has great hair, sort of like Justin You-Know-Who. This is not necessarily the worst thing for a leader trying to coax his party back from the ledge by giving it hope in the future.

So what I'm saying here, even though I don't really have a dog in this fight, is that given what is most likely to happen, Lukaszuk is the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party's best hope of survival past 2016 … by a hair.

If that's described in the Twittersphere as an endorsement, so be it.

That's not what the Tories are going to do, though. Indeed -- remembering Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford here -- they haven’t done the smart thing for a while. You could even say they’re fatally addicted to picking the wrong leader. No reason to expect that to change now.

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

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