Kent Hehr

An effort to meld the Alberta New Democrats and the province’s Liberals into a single party may have come closer than many of us imagined in 2012, indeed it was “mind bogglingly close” one of the insiders from the Liberal side now says, but faltered fatally when Liberal Leader Raj Sherman realized he was unlikely to emerge as the leader of the new party.

Liberal participants in the talks say at one point the entire five-member Liberal caucus was willing to make the move to merge with the four-member NDP caucus in the Legislature if the new “Alberta Democratic Party” had emerged — even though the party would have looked more like the Alberta New Democrats than the Alberta Liberals.

“Raj was on board until he realized he wouldn’t be the leader,” said one Liberal insider.

Be that as it may, there were serious stumbling blocks on the NDP side as well. A key one was the demand by the Liberals pushing the proposed merger that a way must be found to ensure members of the new ADP did not also have to be members of the federal NDP, as is now the case with provincial NDP members.

Despite many similarities in their platforms over the years, this idea would have been a hard sell to many leaders and activists in both parties, each of which has its own traditions, positions and longstanding and at times deep distrust of the other.

The proposed merger agreement drafted by former Liberal party executive director Corey Hogan that was circulated among the leadership of both provincial parties would have allowed members of the new party who did not specifically opt out of membership in the federal NDP to continue to be part of a section of the federal party. Hogan, now a Calgary-based account director with the Hill & Knowlton PR company, has acknowledged he drafted the proposal.

Needless to say, the federal NDP might have had something to say about this particular idea.

The proposal also included a way for members of the Alberta Party and the Alberta Greens to join the new political entity with full voting rights by trading in their old party cards.

It would also have significantly altered the traditional NDP ban on members also holding memberships in other political parties.

In addition, it called for agreement by the Liberals to permanently dissolve their party under the terms of the Election Finances and Disclosures Act and under the Societies Act. Directors would also agree not to authorize the reregistration of the Liberal Party under that name.

This proposal would seem to tacitly acknowledge that even many Liberals recognize the Liberal brand is deeply damaged in Alberta and the orange banner may be a better way forward.

Talk in 2012 of the need to merge the two parties was associated with Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr, who in December that year wrote a “guest post” on Dave Cournoyer’s blog in which he called the Alberta NDP and Liberals “a distinction without a difference.”

In the post, Hehr argued that by joining forces, the Liberals, NDP, Alberta Party and Greens could at least hope to form the opposition, if not to topple the then-still-mighty PC government.

“What keeps us apart is rugged tribalism that leads to infighting between us and keeps our guns pointed squarely at each other instead of focusing our fire on the right-wing in this province,” Hehr wrote in that piece. “I’m putting down my gun, and am open to all conversations with no preconditions.”

“We need to figure out how we can come together in a big tent party,” he added. “Otherwise, we are wasting our time. It’s math.”

In February 2013, he began to acknowledge the idea wasn’t going to fly, telling the Calgary Herald “the various, I guess, fiefdoms have begun to dig in their heels in the sense this is a difficult and painful task, despite 70 to 80 per cent of our voters wanting to do it.”

Now, however, Hehr is not admitting he had anything to do with the effort — “I didn’t propose nothing!”

Anyway, he told me last week, if you’re going to contemplate any change like that, it has to be done early in the ruling party’s mandate — “and that ship has sailed for this election.”

All progressive Alberta voters can or should do now is pick the progressive party they favour in their riding and vote for it, Hehr said. In other words, they should not be persuaded to vote for one conservative party or the other in the hopes it’ll somehow turn out to be the lesser of two evils.

Regardless of his role, however, in December 2012 Hehr was the target of a bizarre and strongly worded news release by the president of his own party, Todd Van Vliet.

“Liberal bylaws state that membership in the party is open to those who ‘subscribe to the principles, aims and objectives of the party,'” Van Vliet wrote in his Dec. 11, 2012, release, firing a shot across Hehr’s metaphorical bow. “Mr. Hehr, more than anyone, should understand that eliminating this party through a merger would not be within the objectives of the party.”

This would seem to lay the merger dream to rest — even if, as some NDP insiders feared, the Liberal MLA was trying to create the conditions for a “Hehr Nation” campaign to lead the new party, something he tried and failed to do in his short-lived 2010 campaign to contest the Calgary mayoral election.

Then again, who knows? New leadership will come to both parties one of these days, just as a new right-wing government may soon come to Alberta, and the pros and cons of “uniting the left” are bound to continue to provoke interest and argument in both Liberal and NDP circles.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...