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Reunite Alberta's right? The Great Wildrose Experiment is going to be hard to undo

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Ken Boessenkool

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Well, no one can say the Great Alberta Wildrose Experiment worked out exactly as anticipated!

It must've seemed like a great idea back in 2008 when politically motivated Albertans too far to the right for the big-tent instincts of the dynastic Progressive Conservative Party got together and cooked up a scheme to engineer a reverse hostile takeover of the PCs designed to move the party and the provincial government radically to the right.

Some of the Wildrose Party's original movers and shakers were particularly incensed at then PC premier Ed Stelmach's unluckily timed and unsuccessful attempt to get a fairer prices for Albertans for their nonrenewable resources.

The Wildrose Party was the Trojan Horse that was supposed make this reverse-takeover maneuver possible -- formed out of the hulks of a couple of unsuccessful far-right fringe parties, named for Alberta's beautiful provincial flower and fertilized with generous dollops oil industry cash.

Four premiers and seven exciting years later, during which it often appeared Alberta was only an election away from a Wildrose government, we have a comfortable New Democratic Party majority in Edmonton determined to once again review the province’s royalty policies, a population apparently reasonably supportive of that policy, and two right-wing parties haggling over what's left of the conservative vote.

It’s enough to make conservative heads spin! The great minds in the most secretive corners of the conservative movement who came up with the Wildrose scheme, then tried to arrange the party's shotgun marriage to the PC Government last fall when the leadership coup by their man Jim Prentice had rendered a second market-fundamentalist party redundant, must be thinking, "What the hell happened?"

So, for sure they are once again contemplating a reunion on the right. For public consumption, the idea of a reunited right-wing party that can restore God to His (obviously male-dominated) Heaven and resume the Tory dynasty in Alberta is being presented as both wise and inevitable.

But when Alberta conservatives now assemble, their tone is more anxious, as illustrated by a quiet cabal of conservatives in an Edmonton suburb, digitally recorded by person or persons unknown and recently published by the left-leaning Broadbent Institute's Press Progress online publication.

In one tidbit made available by Press Progress, Ken Boessenkool -- a veteran campaign strategist tied at various times to campaigns for Prime Minister Stephen Harper, B.C. Premier Christy Clark and Alberta PC interim leader Ric McIver -- bluntly sums up the situation in Edmonton. "In the Western provinces, we are now in a situation where the left is gonna be united, the Liberals are dead, the Alberta Party is a joke and you have a very powerful, very strong -- or soon will be very powerful and very strong -- NDP government. And a divided right against an NDP government is just a second term for Rachel Notley."

Paul Bunner, a former Harper speechwriter now employed by Preston Manning's so-called "centre for building democracy," told the gathering: "In a perfect world the leadership of the two parties would announce today that they're holding exploratory talks on a merger. They would each hold delegated conventions this summer where the members agree to fold up the existing parties. There would then be a founding convention to create a new party, elect a new leader by the fall, then a single conservative candidate would contest and win the Calgary-Foothills by-election. Unfortunately, none of this is likely to happen." (Was that a chuckle, or a cough, that was audible in the background?)

Now just a minute there, cautioned Boessenkool, a signatory to the notorious Firewall Manifesto calling for Alberta sovereignty-association. He explained that this is going to have to happen in secret, presumably so that the two parties' supporters -- who may not be focused on what the movement’s brainiacs think are the right priorities -- don't get wind of what's up.

What's needed, Boessenkool said patiently in the final clip of the Press Progress scoop, is "a discussion among the senior people in both parties, unfortunately in private, about the willingness to proceed down a road where the other party doesn't say no immediately."

He seems to be saying "the first public communication" must come only after the process has moved too far along for messy grassroots democracy to try to stop it.

Count on it, this time Manning will make no public appearances, with or without his metaphorical matrimonial shotguns, like his disastrous (to conservatives) intervention in the effort to fold the Wildrose Opposition into the Prentice PCs last December.

In the mean time, Boessenkool can be heard on the tape’s closing segment explaining what happened during the 2003 hostile reverse takeover of the federal PCs by the Reform Party: While the deal was being sealed behind closed doors, "we continued to bash each other over the head" in public. It was not clear to me whether Boessenkool meant this as a strategic suggestion or a tactical lament.

Regardless, Boessenkool is likely right in his view any merger of the Wildrose and PC parties will have to be conducted in secret from their members, because the divisions are just too deep, and the disgust at last year's cynical merger too profound, for members to stand for any such agreement if they're permitted to know what's going on.

At the caucus level, too, the rift is wide -- after the contempt with which the two parties treated each other right up until last winter’s maneuvers.

The parties have structural problems as well. The PCs were battered more severely by the May 5 election, emerging with only 10 seats, reduced to nine by Prentice's petulant election-night resignation. (That's the reason for the by-election referenced by Bunner, a date for which has not yet been set.)

But the Wildrosers are firmly identified in the minds of urban Albertans as a rural rump, unrepresentative of the style or attitudes they look for in a government, and therefore all but unelectable unless the Notley Government manages to mess up spectacularly.

So a takeover that favours the larger and more successful party will hurt the movement more than a takeover by the reviled and less successful branch. That too will be hard for the unite-the-righters to work around.

Finally, it hardly seems likely that having just saved the party, and possibly the conservative movement in Alberta, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean will be in a mood to step aside for the good of the cause. Yet, given his wooden performance in the election campaign, his lack of political appeal outside hard-right and rural circles, and his insipid effort during a decade as an MP, he will probably have to go for a merger to succeed.

So the idea or fixing everything through a rightwing family reunion is not as inevitable or as easy as its proponents would like Albertans to believe.

That said, behind the scenes, the people with the money and the big sticks will be pushing hard to reunite right as quickly as possible, at least as soon as they've confronted the danger presented to their plans by the prospect of Thomas Mulcair as prime minister of Canada.

And, count on it, their next meeting will be by invitation only, behind locked doors, with cellphones confiscated by Security!

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

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