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Whither Alberta's Progressive Conservatives? Nowhere, probably …

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Jim Prentice

Former premier Ed Stelmach's sound advice notwithstanding, it seems unlikely Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives have much of a future after the debacle they brought on themselves on May 5.

Acknowledging this takes nothing from the nearly perfect campaign run by Premier Designate Rachel Notley and her New Democratic Party in the lead-up to the election.

And while it is true the province's last PC premier, Jim Prentice, and his advisors devised almost the worst, most arrogant and foolish campaign imaginable, over the years the party had become a hollow shell of what it was under Peter Lougheed, its principles and vision long ago sloughed away.

Alberta voters have realized this for a long time -- dissatisfaction with the PCs went all the way back to Don Getty’s regime and bubbled to the surface at the start of Stelmach's tenure, reaching fever pitch during Alison Redford's catastrophic premiership.

Jim Prentice was supposed to fix that problem. But that was before he started making decisions.

Still, voters needed to be given positive reasons to choose someone else and not just be insulted for what they had done in the past. The fact Rachel Notley made it easy for Albertans to vote NDP after supporting another party for so long was the true genius of her campaign.

As for Prentice's effort, in retrospect it was almost laughably bad, taking the wrong turn at every opportunity, although in the lead-up to the vote many pundits were so blinded by the PCs' status as Natural Governing Party that it was hard to see the obvious.

In any other province, it would have been easier for pundits to do the math and conclude there was a price to be paid for blandly defying the public's almost universally held view the election was being called a year too soon, for taking over the opposition as if it were a business acquisition and then betraying the MLAs who crossed the floor, for ignoring and firing experienced ministers like Doug Horner who knew their own corners of the province, for introducing a budget everyone on the left and right could hate with equal intensity, for telling Albertans the province's financial troubles were their own fault, and for letting their friends call a last-minute news conference to insult and patronize voters leaning toward another party.

Heaven knows, the Tories had the cash and plenty of opportunities to do things right. Instead, they hurried into an election that, as pollster Mario Canseco noted in the Vancouver Observer, left them as the incumbent party "without two weapons that have been used extensively to hold on to power: the opportunity to demonize an opponent, and time to develop a strategy to counter discontent."

But if the quality of the NDP effort and the PC election campaign were the PCs' only problems, there is no reason they could not expect to return to power and survive and prosper under a new leader, as other parties in a similar spot have done.

The PCs' fundamental crisis, though, is based in the fact that as the exercise of power became their sole reason for existence they stopped paying attention to voters altogether. By the time Prentice came along, they actually believed a campaign based on the premise the province needed a CEO, not a political leader, made sense!

Once a big-tent, small-c conservative party with a seemingly unshakable grip on power, they drifted to the market-fundamentalist right in search of corporate donations, paying no attention to the fact the province was becoming more liberal and moderate as immigrants from other parts of Canada moved here to work.

This left the PCs, in the words of Parkland Institute Director and University of Lethbridge Professor Trevor Harrison, "captive to the corporate sector and its rural (anti-tax) base," and thus unable and unwilling to respond to the wishes of the new Alberta’s more diverse population.

Stelmach alone of the PCs' recent leaders seemed to get this, trying to ease the party back toward the centre, prompting the palace coup of 2008-2009 against his rule led by Ted Morton and other hard-right ideologues, financed and encouraged by elements of Alberta's oiligarchy.

This did not work out as planned, netting the party, first, the catastrophic Redford, and then the incompetent Prentice.

Deprived of power and reduced to a shadow of their former glory, it leaves the PCs with little reason to exist, alienated from their own moderate support base and likely to soon be deprived of the corporate cash that sustained the party after it forgot how to raise money from small donors as the NDP, Wildrose and federal Conservatives are all capable of doing.

Conservative commentators are already wailing about how Canada's Parliamentary system gave the NDP a "false majority" because Wildrose Party and PC votes combined outnumbered NDP percentage support. There is irony in this because it's well-funded conservatives who have mostly benefited from this phenomenon in Canada in recent years. In addition, as any Liberal or Dipper can tell you, getting voters to switch from one party to another with a similar philosophy is more complicated than it ought to be.

Given all this, as corporate funders and right-wing ideologues search for a new vehicle to carry forward their dystopian aspirations, it seems unlikely it will be the Progressive Conservatives, hollowed out and thoroughly discredited with voters.

Nor is it necessarily the Wildrose Party, reduced to a rural anti-tax party by the NDP's urban sweep and the blowback from cynical machinations of Prentice and former Opposition leader Danielle Smith.

This should give the NDP a little breathing room to train its young caucus and get down to the business of governing.

Meanwhile, the Preston Mannings of this corner of the world will be searching for a new political party capable of carrying forward their market-fundamentalist agenda.

If I were a betting man, I would say that is more likely to be the progressive-seeming Alberta Party than either the ruined Tories or the Rose-Hip-Tea Party the Wildrose has become.

Regardless of which party becomes the standard bearer for the right, if I were setting the NDP's agenda, I would place that promised ban on corporate and union donations right at the very top of my legislative to-do list!

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

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