There were two political departures in Alberta yesterday, one that will probably be the subject of too much mainstream analysis, and the other that is unlikely to get enough.
The first was the departure from the NDP backbenches of Calgary MLA Karen McPherson to sit an independent, which will probably get more ink than it deserves because it can be made to fit the prevailing media narrative of the fate and future of Premier Rachel Notley’s government.
The second was the departure of former Wildrose Party president Jeff Callaway from the contest to lead the United Conservative Party, which given the purpose of his candidacy in the first place probably warrants more study than it is likely to get.
Both are likely to spend only a little time on Alberta’s political radar.
McPherson, MLA for Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill, was one of the government caucus members from traditionally conservative Calgary elected en masse in the May 5, 2015, general election. She has kept a fairly low profile in caucus and, while her social media announcement yesterday morning she was leaving was unexpected, it did not come as a complete shock to caucus insiders.
At any rate, her decision to go was greeted with a surprising amount of empathy by some NDP MLAs, who seemed to respect her personal feelings even if they were not happy with her decision to quit.
McPherson didn’t exactly slam Notley’s government in her published note — “I wish nothing but the best for them” — but expressed her disquiet with the polarized state of Alberta’s provincial politics and gently criticized the government for not having a plan to eliminate the province’s deficit.
Whether such a plan involves the wholesale destruction of public services, as is apparently contemplated by the United Conservative Party, or recognition of the province’s continuing revenue problem in an era of low oil prices, this is a fair observation.
The northwest Calgary MLA’s concerns about polarization, as many observers noted, were not unlike those of former Progressive Conservative and United Conservative Party MLA Rick Fraser, who left the UCP Caucus two weeks ago, also to sit as an independent, criticizing his last party’s divisive approach to politics and lack of grace and compassion.
Naturally, with five standalone MLAs already in the Legislature, four of them apparently trying to position themselves as a centrist alternative to both the NDP and the UCP, McPherson’s decision aroused speculation that with her along, any three of Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, legacy PC MLA Richard Starke, lone Liberal MLA David Swann and the independent Fraser they would add up to enough members to achieve official party status if they could overcome their differences.
The odd independent out is train-wreck “Liberty Conservative” Derek Fildebrandt, the UCP’s answer to Lemony Snicket, sidelined by a series of unfortunate events that included being caught with his taxpayer subsidized apartment for rent on Airbnb, filing erroneous expense claims, and being charged by police with leaving the scene of a minor accident in his pickup truck. A traffic court decision in the latter matter is expected on December 18.
McPherson’s departure will not make re-election of the NDP easier in Calgary — which is expected to be the key battleground in the Alberta general election expected in 2019.
As for Callaway, he was pressed into service rather late in the UCP leadership race as stalking horse for front-runner Jason Kenney, the role for which Fildebrandt was originally intended.
This candidate’s principal job was to level a stream of harsh and embarrassing criticisms at former Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, who is Kenney’s only serious competition for the job of UCP leader, while the frontrunner stood back from the fray.
In this role, Callaway performed adequately, and can be expected to continue to do so from the sidelines, but never delivered the entertaining fireworks that had been anticipated from the bombastic Fildebrandt.
Callaway had cast himself in the role of the party’s big idea guy, which is a scary thought seeing his biggest idea seemed to be for Alberta to buy the remote and bleak Hudson’s Bay port of Churchill, Manitoba, to be the terminus of an oil pipeline that avoided the inconveniently environmentally energized populations of British Columbia, Ontario and Quebec. Never mind that Hudson’s Bay could only be expected to stand in as navigable tidewater most of the time thanks to global climate change, a reality the UCP would be just as happy not to acknowledge.
Callaway’s departure comes just in time to save his financial benefactors — whomever they may be — the final $37,500 needed to pay off his $95,000 entry fee to the pricey UCP leadership race. Having behaved himself, he expects to get back the $20,000 good-behaviour bond included in the original payment. Predictably, he endorsed Kenney as he went out the door.
According to the Calgary Herald, Kenney called Callaway a man of integrity.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.