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It's going to take more than Valentine cards and chocolate to unite Alberta's fractious right

Rick Orman

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Be my Valentine? Forget it!

With all the romancing going on these days, you'd think there'd be some romance! But it sure looks as if it's going to take more than cards and chocolate to stoke the fires of unity on Alberta's fractured and sometimes fractious right.

Indeed, with the reaction to the revelation on Friday that a group of mostly unidentified former right-wing political insiders plans to meet this week to find a way to mend the conservative movement's broken heart, and the hostile reaction to that scheme by Wildrose Party officials, it's getting to be a bit like a soap opera around here!

Who would've thought a decade ago that the idea that Albertans of similarly conservative viewpoints getting together roundabout Valentine’s Day would cause discord in the ranks?

According to a typically fulsome report Friday in the virtual Calgary Herald, the latest "unite the right" effort is led by oilpatch executive and former Calgary MLA Rick Orman, who was a cabinet minister in premier Don Getty's cabinet from 1986 to 1992 and who ran for the leadership of the PC Party in 1992 and 2011.

Orman won't say who the other participants are. Last fall, though, Canadian Strategy Group announced Orman was joining its ranks as "strategic counsel." CSG honcho Hal Danchilla is a Tory stalwart with deep connections to Alberta's still-entrenched Conservative establishment and extensive knowledge about who is who and how things work in the Tory "deep state," so he would certainly be and excellent resource for Orman. 

Danchilla yesterday declined to say if he has a role in Orman's effort.

Regardless, if the group or any other wants to romance Wildrose Leader Brian Jean or the members of his party, they might want to rethink the idea of organizing an elite group to cook up plans behind closed doors.

As an outsider, this sure looks like the traditional PC way of doing business in Alberta: no information and a strong element of "just trust us."

The news of Orman's group comes in the wake of relentless publicity about Alberta Prosperity Fund and Advocacy Ltd., a self-styled U.S.-style "Super PAC" -- that is, a political action committee designed to skirt campaign financing laws -- set up last fall by a former Wildrose Party fund-raiser.

Jean and the Official Opposition are also none too comfortable with this outfit either, for reasons that were outlined at some length in a previous AlbertaPolitics.ca post. These worries about any such unite-the-right effort may be summarized as follows:

  • Too many Tory insiders involved suggests such groups have the interests of the Progressive Conservative Party at heart
  • Belief the money they raise would be more useful under the Wildrose Party's control
  • Suspicion that a new united party would have to have a leadership contest, which Jean cannot be certain of winning

On the last point, you can hardly blame the man for wanting his chance at the prize.

Add to this bad feelings in the Tory caucus left over from Wildrose attacks on the PC government in the last years of the latter party's dynasty, and the distrust among both parties' rank and file created when former leader Danielle Smith led the majority of the Opposition caucus across the floor to join the Tories in December 2014, and you have a situation that will be difficult to resolve by the broken-hearted right.

In Friday's Herald story, Jean called these new unite-the-right groups "outsiders" whose objective is to "commandeer" the process. On this point, it seems quite likely Jean is right.

Given this reaction to Orman's group, and the group’s top-down and secretive modus operandi, it sounds more as if it will end up being just an effort to woo Wildrose members back to the Tories.

If so, Jean and his advisors will certainly do their best to resist it, because they have a different strategy and a different view of where the conservative movement needs to go.

Even Conservative paterfamilias Preston Manning -- still doubtless feeling a bit singed by the reaction to his big role in the 2014 effort to merge the Tory and Wildrose legislative caucuses -- gingerly tippy-toed into the fray, advising in an opinion piece widely distributed by mainstream media that "uniting of conservative-minded forces in Alberta cannot be achieved exclusively at the executive and leadership level." (Emphasis added.)

"Any united alternative process must therefore be conducted so as to involve and carry the judgment of the grassroots and the public at every stage," Manning wrote.

Given Manning's history, diehard Wildrosers are likely to treat this advice with a certain degree of caution.

Still, given the practicalities of pleasing large numbers of members across the fairly broad Alberta right-wing spectrum, a united right may only be possible after consensus at the executive and leadership levels -- which no doubt explains Manning's cautious caveat, emphasized above.

There is certainly an appetite for union on the right in Alberta, but every faction of the One True Market-Fundamentalist Church wants it only on its own terms.

So it seems to me likely this won't happen until it’s made clear by voters that one party or the other -- the Wildrose or the PCs -- no can no longer win on its own.

Nevertheless, it would be foolish for NDP supporters and strategists to assume the right in Alberta will never reunite into a single party. Sooner or later, they are bound to, with one or the other on top.

Don't, however, look for the Wildrose and Tories to get together and run a single candidate in the by-election that must be called in Calgary-Greenway to replace PC MLA Manmeet Bhullar, who was killed in a highway crash on Nov. 23.

And even though they're probably worth less than they were a couple of years ago, don't bet your farm or your urban condo on the right managing to do it in time for Alberta's next election in 2019.

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

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