Alberta may not be conservative but it is beholden to a conservative identity

“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” by Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean, November 29, 2019

Stephen Harper’s full quote was “you’ll often hear that in Canada; I’m a pragmatist or I’m a centrist, and coming from the mouth of a conservative, often means they’re left of centre but somehow want to be in a conservative party.”

I’ve been mulling over the above for more than three years. It was always on the periphery of my understanding of identity politics and the conservative unity projects both in Alberta and Canada.

After Kenney said he would step down as leader of the United Conservative Party on May 18, 2022, I was talking about the CBC’s Road Ahead series where they came to the conclusion that Albertans are, by and large, in favour of liberal policies.

That series came out in 2018 as well, ahead of Harper’s interview, and I’ve referred to it often since.

In one of the conversations I had over the next few days, it finally all came together.

Why would a pragmatist, centrist, or *gasp* a liberal want to be in a conservative party?

Because: Alberta.

The conservative heartland of Canada, as Alberta is often called, is more conservative — as the curiosity of ideological differences between the federal NDP and Alberta NDP were made painfully obvious during their term — and we absolutely have actual conservatives of many stripes in this province, but Alberta is not conservative, at least, not by actual conservative standards.

According to the extensive research that was done for the Road Ahead series, Albertans are, by and large, in favour of left-of-centre policies but vote conservative.

We not only, by and large, vote conservative — we are members of conservative parties. Not only are we members of conservative parties, we are volunteers for conservative parties, and donors to conservative parties. Alberta has a reputation both within and beyond our borders for being a province full of conservatives.

Conservatives who “accidentally” elected an NDP government.

For the NDP’s entire term, 2015-2019, the Wildrose, PCs, and then the UCP repeated this “accidental government” trope. It reeked of “accidentally” cheating on your spouse.

What I hadn’t considered was how desperately conservatives needed to believe it was an accident.

Our conservative roots are well-established at home and beyond; we are the birthplace of Social Credit and the Reform Party. We sent Preston Manning, Stephen Harper, Jason Kenney, and dozens more ideologically conservative representatives to Ottawa to speak on our behalf.

Why would we do that if we weren’t ideologically conservative?

Or, as Harper put it “somehow want to be in a conservative party”?

In Alberta, “liberal” isn’t just another “L-word”.

Here, it’s “anti-Albertan” – synonymous with “recession” and “downturn” because the worst (global) recession since the Great Depression followed a liberal Prime Minister’s proposal for a National Energy Program to ensure Canada’s energy security.

In Alberta, being liberal is (by and large) simply not something one does (though some have done so successfully).

A friend and admitted “ideological conservative” quipped that Albertans don’t (by and large) vote liberal because “it’s how our Laurentian oppressors vote”.

That helps explain western alienation, Reform, and the host of other thorns in our side.

Yet, equally part of Alberta’s heritage is that we also elected the United Farmers of Alberta, who governed for 14 years before Social Credit, and is the same party from which the NDP grew – though we don’t talk much about that.

We do still talk about the Progressive Conservatives – borne of a coalition of Red Tories and Blue Liberals – who managed to straddle the centre while also having the leeway to move right or left on policy and still be well within its own ideological boundaries.

Alberta’s PC party was a remarkably successful “big tent” party; not just because of that ideological leeway, but also because it served as a home for those who were not ideologically conservative but were beholden to a conservative identity.

Because that is what Albertans have been, for decades upon decades: beholden to a conservative identity.

A conservative identity that has been mistaken by some of our most well-known conservative leaders — like Preston Manning, Stephen Harper, and Jason Kenney — as a conservative ideology.

In his latest piece for The Line, Ken Boessenkool argues that what Alberta has, instead, is a conservative disposition.

“Alberta’s conservative disposition is all too often mistaken for a conservative ideology. Trouble is, and despite what you’ve heard, Alberta doesn’t really have a conservative ideology. I have been saying and writing for years that Alberta is Canada’s socialist paradise…

From Alberta isn’t conservative by Ken Boessenkool, May 26, 2022

Kenney promised to move swiftly and repeal everything the NDP had done, and more, even throughout a global pandemic, the UCP pushed forward with such speed that it made observers’ heads spin.

That speed made it look more like “progress” than anything the NDP did — if progress was simply measured by the quantity, rather than the quality, of change.

It wasn’t just the speed that had people’s heads spinning; the sheer unpopularity of too many of those decisions has been measured, and remeasured, and Kenney and his caucus pushed forward.

This is not to be confused with good leaders who make difficult decisions because they will help reach a common goal.

No, what Jason Kenney and his party did was put in ear plugs to drown out criticism.

They would have kept them in, too, if half of their own party didn’t finally command their attention with a leadership review.

Though it’s not as if there weren’t signs.

Since the pandemic, the UCP has trailed the NDP in fundraising.

The UCP, in their attempt to appear to be “listening” to Albertans has offered surveys that demonstrated less than 20 per cent support for their policy proposals but charged ahead anyway.

They’ve struck committees and panels under the guise of seeking input but with such strategically-defined parameters that ensured they would not receive a complete picture.

Like, for example, the Blue Ribbon Panel, whose task was to look only at ways to bring down expenses without considering the province’s revenue problem. To their credit, the panel made more than one reference to the fact that the province could not cut its way to balance. The earplugs, however, were already firmly in place.

UCP’s critics — in the House, the public sphere, academia, their own caucus, and finally, their own party — were labelled as “champagne socialists”, “over-caffeinated lefties”, “elites”, “communist professors”, “radical downtown urbanites”, “out of touch”, “trouble-makers”, and finally, “kooks”, and “extremists” – by both elected officials and their staff.

“Public” servants, indeed.

For the first time since 1971, Albertans elected an actual, ideological, conservative government.

One who was lead by a man who went out and bought a blue pickup truck to use as a prop while he donned his “Alberta everyman” costume and played rural Albertan.

A man who, when he spoke to who he believed Albertans were, saw his approval plummet to the lowest in Canada. Month by month, Kenney’s support fell.

As those months of pandemic uncertainty dragged on, as Kenney and his government continued to wage war on doctors and nurses, the term of an NDP government, while during difficult financial times, suddenly looked much more reliable – and trustworthy.

For there is someone ready to ascend to the premier’s chair who, despite having not a whit of conservative ideology, nonetheless possesses a conservative disposition. Someone with deep political, public and familial roots in Alberta, someone who, in her first shot, was surprisingly skeptical of radical change. Someone who more regularly invoked the legacy of Peter Lougheed than folks in her own political lineage. Someone who is capable of demonstrating gratitude for simply being an Albertan.

From Alberta isn’t conservative by Ken Boessenkool, May 26, 2022

Many were disappointed with an NDP government — mostly, though, that disappointment came from people who wanted and expected change: radical, leftist change.

They were very disappointed.

A great many Albertans, however (and even more in 2019) probably noticed that the Alberta NDP eased into the PC’s shoes with graceful ease. The shoes fit.

Even so, the colour is still a little jarring to, also, a great many Albertans.

I think Albertans are, by and large, as Harper said, “pragmatists or centrists… who somehow want to be in a conservative party.”

Once we come to terms with that, we might be able to secure better representation, and better government for Alberta.

This post contains opinion.

Deirdre Mitchell-MacLean is a political podcaster and commentator.
Connect: @Mitchell_AB for more, or @politicalRnD for posts

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