I don’t know if it’s normal to question your preferred political ideology – I certainly never gave it much thought before I decided to live and breathe politics. That introspection came just before the first change in the provincial governing party in my lifetime and it hasn’t really stopped.
While the first change in government in 44 years seemed like something to be optimistic about, the election of a non-conservative government sent a tremendous shock through the people of this province and beyond.
It’s not like I, or anyone who was peripherally aware of the political climate in Alberta, didn’t know there was a simmering anger. The former Wildrose Party was dubbed “the anger machine” for as long as I can remember.
In 2015, though, that anger, directed at the dynastic Progressive Conservatives, finally boiled over… and elected an NDP government.
The events that unfolded afterward – a prolonged decline in oil prices, Jason Kenney’s bid to save Alberta, long-term unemployment, uniting the conservative parties – culminated in a return to conservative rule, introduced a global pandemic, and perhaps once again, the government will wear the angst of a weary electorate.
In Scott Payne’s recent article, The end of Alberta Conservatism?, he explored the question with some knowledgeable former progressive conservatives who, in conservative circles, are considered liberals at best, socialists at worst. It’s not a personal reflection, rather an observation from the past four years of spending a lot of time around self-identifying conservatives.
The splintering of conservatism is, in my mind, comparable to the splintering of Christianity; where once there was a ‘big tent’, smaller groups left to determine boundaries around a preferred set of values to create an identity that, while similar, is purposefully distinct from the traditional group. It is fair to argue that there is an ebb and flow in conservative’s political identity that unites and divides as society itself changes.
The most well-known types are Red and Blue Tories, social, libertarian, and moderate, or centrist, conservatism. Some well-known Canadian conservatives decided a long time ago that the “big tent” needed to have some ‘hard walls’ of its own.
“In a 1997 interview with Maclean’s, the year Reform became the Official Opposition in the House of Commons, (Preston) Manning broached the subject of a more purist Conservative coalition.
‘I don’t know how long the federal Tories can keep voting with the Liberals without adding credit to this idea that what ought to happen to sort all this out is that the Red Tories should go with the Liberals if they are Liberals and call themselves Liberals,’ Manning offered.
‘The Blue Tories should come to us.’
Harper (went further) during a 2018 conversation with Ben Shapiro when he stated centrists don’t belong in a conservative party.From “We were kids in the Reform Party when we first met” – 2019
Thomas Lukaszuk, a former PC MLA, represented Edmonton-Castle Downs from 2001-15 and considers himself to be on the more progressive side of the PC caucuses he was part of but he said the strength of the party was in its diversity. That difference, he said, allowed the party to be relativist and move wherever they needed to be to govern through societal and demographic changes.
Former PC MLA in the riding of Calgary-Currie, Christine Cusanelli, considers herself to be a principled conservative and bristled at the term ‘political relativism’ applied to both the PCs and the UCP. Cusanelli said relativism was “disingenuous” for a governing party to attempt and that it was necessary to “stick the post in the ground” and be open about how they make decisions.
Jonathan Denis, the PC MLA for Calgary-Acadia from 2008 until 2015, considers himself to be a “classical liberal”. Classical liberalism is as difficult to define as conservatism but commonly noted are principles of freedom, property rights, rule of law, and limited government. These principles are also strong in libertarianism, where Holly Nicholas, a former political commentator, says she finds herself. The two differ in their support of the now-merged United Conservative Party, however.
Heather Forsyth, the former MLA for Calgary-Fish Creek, was first elected under the PC banner in 1993. In 2010, she crossed the floor with fellow PC Rob Anderson to the opposition Wildrose, who at the time had only one MLA, Paul Hinman. Forsyth says now, as she did then, that her decision to cross the floor stemmed from her belief that the PC’s “lost their way” under former Premier Ed Stelmach. Still, she says she was a strong fiscal conservative who also cared about social issues.
Nicholas says she became interested in politics in the early 2010’s and gravitated toward the Wildrose Party when it was under the leadership of Danielle Smith. Smith has a complicated past with her own political identity coming from the PC party in early adulthood. As the leader of the Wildrose, and since, she often referred to herself as a libertarian but most recently – when she announced her resignation from CHQR 770 where she hosts The Danielle Smith Show – a centrist.
Smith held a role in Nicholas’ political involvement and also in solidifying her political identity.
“I loved Danielle Smith – loved her messaging – but my first journey into political activism was the ‘Recall Danielle Smith’ campaign after she crossed the floor (from the Wildrose to the Progressive Conservatives in 2014). I went to High River and got signatures because I was so upset that she did that,” she told me over the phone.
“I thought I was conservative all along, but meeting some of these politicians, campaigning with them, getting to know them, and seeing that what they were saying and what they were doing were totally different things – I just became really disillusioned with this whole (identity) thing. I realized that not everything fits into this little conservative box.”
Nicholas said she was optimistic when the PC and Wildrose parties merged, hoping Jason Kenney would emulate the conservative principles he claimed to support but she feels his foray as government into business and personal mobility is a step too far from her own principles.
Denis said he felt that the PCs were “alienating its traditional base”, which he believes was much more conservative than the PC party after Klein. He felt the lack of conservative principles allowed the Wildrose an opportunity to gain a much stronger foothold as an alternative for conservative voters.
“I did support Jim Prentice for leader in 2014. One of the reasons was because I felt someone with a background in the federal conservative party, with Stephen Harper, would be able to bring us back to our base (and) sew the divisions amongst conservatives,” Denis said during a phone interview.
“I really did not enjoy fighting other conservatives, people who I philosophically had much more in common with than differences.”
“When you had a caucus that had me, and Ted Morton, and (Dave) Hancock in it, naturally, there would be fights,” he said.
“(Morton and others) would come from a very social and fiscal conservative viewpoint and I would be a relativist, or pragmatist, along with (Doug) Griffiths and others. So we would have those fights but at the end we would have a vote, hammer out policy, and half of us would be relatively unhappy – sometimes you lose and sometimes you win.”
“But some of them never belonged in the PC party – they should have been in the Wildrose. They ran under the PCs because they couldn’t get elected under anything else.”
Forsyth recounted her time with the PC caucus similarly, saying that when they sat around the table, it could be “loud, and animated” but they came together – until they didn’t.
Forsyth wasn’t loyal to the PC Party per se, and was re-elected under the Wildrose banner in 2012. She added that she was on the doors in 2015 and felt that change was coming. The PC candidate in 2015, Richard Gotfried, won Calgary-Fish Creek by 129 votes over the NDP candidate and 630 votes over the Wildrose.
“People were angry – I knew we were in trouble,” she said.
“They wanted to teach the PC’s a lesson… but conservatives don’t vote for other parties – they stay home.”
For Cusanelli, good governance comes down to a question of economics, no matter what your political lean may be.
“If we just separate it into left and right, the two extremes, you look at how do we bolster the economy, how do we create a thriving economy?” She asked.
“Both, it doesn’t matter which end of the spectrum, everybody, at the end of the day, is voting for a government that is going to be able to use those dollars in a way that is best suited to the electorate. Alberta did have a lot of money, and why was that? For oil and gas it was because government tried as much as possible to stay out of the way and let oil and gas leaders do what they needed to be prosperous – reducing red tape, and keeping taxes low.”
Forsyth is involved with the next generation of conservatives through her organization We R Conservative and she said she is encouraged by youth that are coming up in the conservative ranks but she did say that she believes youth are not as likely to be conservative simply because their parents are.
Through a few meetings, Forsyth and the group identified what they believe are their prominent conservative values including: fiscal responsibility, accountability, environmental responsibility, personal freedom, self-reliance, patriotism, and community building. When asked if she felt those were unique values to conservatives, she responded that “they’re not the values (left-leaning political supporters) want us to have.”
Although Nicholas originally supported both the merger and Kenney’s leadership she says she is disappointed and doesn’t feel there’s a political home for her at the moment.
“We were promised jobs, we were promised a better economy,” she said.
“I understand that Covid was unpredictable but there hasn’t been any movement on (jobs and the economy).”
Denis said that while he disagreed completely with the spending on KXL, no one will ever agree with a party all the time and indicated it wasn’t anywhere near a breaking point for him. Cusanelli essentially agreed, saying Kenney had a “50/50 chance of being successful” with the project, and the current climate necessitates some risk.
That left Lukaszuk as the outlier in his refusal to support the current conservative parties simply because he never felt the absolutists, as he defines the former Wildrose, and current Premier Jason Kenney, can pivot when needed. In his opinion, Lougheed’s PC Party was essentially a rebranded liberal party that was able to straddle the centre and move left, or right, when they needed to.
Alberta has been in a tumultuous state since 2012 when the Wildrose was on track to form government until days before the election. As the Wildrose Independence Party seeks to reestablish itself in the province, and a gaping hole in the left by the PCs and Liberals, one can be forgiven for thinking that if nothing changes, an opportunity exists for either the NDP or the UCP to firmly take over the centre.
Dr. Melanee Thomas, who was part of the CBC’s Road Ahead Series research, says their findings suggest that Albertans are much more liberal than their political preferences would have us believe. Should that prove to be true, it is unlikely the UCP has any interest, let alone the capability, of bringing those voters into its tent.
The United Conservative Party itself is polling with slightly less approval than its leader, which Forsyth suggests is simply due to the political landscape. She feels the conservative parties are all having difficulty getting their messaging out but doesn’t necessarily feel that conservative premiers are having a more difficult time with the pandemic.
Cusanelli, on the other hand, feels it’s a particularly difficult time but in the end comes down to what works, and for her, it’s the economy. She seems confident that risks need to be taken in the current climate and that a reliance on conservative principles will be successful.
Nicholas might agree that the current landscape calls for some out-of-the-box thinking, but applying her libertarian lens, having a 50/50 chance of success on a risky investment doesn’t negate the fact that picking winners and losers is not the government’s role.
I would also take it a step further and say there’s no win, from a libertarian standpoint, on that risk – either you lose, because you shouldn’t have been involved in the first place, or you win and become overly optimistic about continuing to meddle in the market. There’s no up side.
But Nicholas doesn’t think conservatism is the problem moving forward, rather the problem is the political entities representing conservatism. She believes there’s a lot of conservatives left in the province but that the majority of voters are swing voters – hence an NDP government in 2015.
“I think there’s a death of conservative parties because the parties just aren’t principled anymore,” she said.
Perhaps due to his background with the PCs, Denis, like Cusanelli, is willing to accept some political relativism. Although he didn’t address the potential rise of the Wildrose specifically, Denis did say that without the united party of conservatives, he thought the NDP could have been re-elected in 2019.
I think Alberta will always have a conservative party (or three) but with the economic state of the province, combined with a pandemic, and a very good chance that many people in this province have caught on to what’s going on outside of our borders in terms of the future of energy, there’s a very good chance that many people will be rethinking what they want for themselves – and their children.
Whether that looks like a step to the left, or a step to the right, I cannot say. Even amongst conservatives, there’s a differing opinion of what the electorate looks like.
What I can say is that, as of today, there are only three parties seriously working to put themselves in the legislature in 2023. Take from that what you will.
This post contains opinion.
Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political commentator physically distancing in Southern Alberta.
Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, @thisweekinAB for posts, @politicalRnD for something in between
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