Ambrose Should Save Alberta
Days after the Alberta Apocalypse, it appeared as though the Wildrose would be the obvious choice in 2019. It looked like Progressive Conservatives had finally crumbled under the weight of their own arrogance. The stunning surge in voter turnout gave the NDP over 600,000 votes, which created the illusion of a complete PC collapse. The election knocked the party into third place in the legislature, but in terms of raw votes, the Progressive Conservatives out-performed the Wildrose by 53,000. Had there been no NDP surge, there likely would have been a Progressive Conservative minority. Instead, socialists and ordinary Albertans rage-voted a group of socialist goons and neophytes into office. From there, the Wildrose seemed poised to be the only alternative. As donors began to shift from the PCs to the Wildrose, the Wildrose appeared to be the new voice of Alberta's conservatives and the next government in waiting.
Not so fast.
Despite winning more seats than the Progressive Conservatives, the Wildrose hasn't been able to consolidate Alberta's conservative factions. The rural-urban divide hasn't disappeared. In fact, contrary to popular belief, Calgarians aren't nearly as conservative as they like to think. Rural Alberta is home to a whole different breed of conservatives than urban Calgary and Edmonton. A new Mainstreet poll suggests the Wildrose has failed to bring the two together.
“Among decided voters it would be a tight race with all parties within 5%. The Wildrose would lead with 33%, the PCs would follow with 31% and the NDP would stand at 27%.” – Mainstreet Research, February 6, 2016
Most headlines for this poll talk about the NDP's slide to third place. The real story is about two conservative parties tied for first place. The real story is about how the Wildrose has failed to build a lead of 20% after the NDP has nudged Alberta further and further into economic ruin.
Opinion polls are usually as valuable as scraps that butchers throw to dogs, but there's no reason to doubt Mainstreet Research. They've been one of the most successful polling agencies and have had the largest sample sizes. The poll we're talking about was based on a sample of 3000 likely voters, not the usual provincial polling average of 600-800. There's also no reason to believe that we should have faith that the Wildrose will do better during an actual campaign. Campaigns can change everything, but it's not necessarily true that Brian Jean would do any better in 2019. Unless he learns to say more than “we won't raise your taxes” and takes rigorous lessons in public speaking, there's no reason to believe 2019 will be any different than 2015.
I've warmed up to Brian Jean and considered the Wildrose my automatic choice in 2019, but this latest poll suggests Albertans don't feel the same way. This is a bigger problem for the Wildrose than they're willing to admit. To truly rid Alberta of this socialist scourge, we'll need to face some painful truths. The solutions to this conservative divide won't be easy to swallow, but we'll need to plug our noses and get it done.
Below is how raw votes looked after the Alberta election, how it might have looked without the NDP and a comparison to the previous provincial election:
The Conservative Party Of Alberta (CPA)
Talks of a PC/Wildrose merger have been met with mixed reactions. Some have said the parties should merge. Others have said that one party should just obliterate the other. In December, Jeff Hodgson suggested that there should be no merger and that voters should choose the Wildrose. His suggestion was met mostly with positivity by Wildrose supporters, but not so much by Progressive Conservatives.
The Wildrose think they have the upper hand with more donors and a higher seat count, but that could all change when the Progressive Conservatives select a new leader. According to Mainstreet Research, voters have the upper hand and they aren't sold on Brian Jean's Wildrose. It's this lack of confidence in Jean that could be the difference between another NDP victory and an NDP collapse.
Combined, the forces of the Wildrose and PCs could top 55% in the next election. The NDP would likely take 30-37%, which could still be enough for another slim majority – or minority – with two conservative parties splitting their own votes.
Alberta's two right-wing parties can take a chance by hoping voters will unite behind one party like the left did in 2015, or they can consolidate their efforts and their support in time for 2019. This would mean abandoning both the Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives for one united banner. This would mean huge sacrifices for Brian Jean and the Wildrose membership. Like the Canadian Alliance and federal PCs did before them, the two parties would have to hold a leadership contest and Brian Jean might need to settle for deputy, or for a big cabinet portfolio.
Uniting the two conservative forces could take a lot of forms, but the most likely path to a merger would be within the PCAA leadership and with the entrance of a heavyweight from federal politics. During the party's AGM this spring, it's likely that the PCAA will elect to postpone its next leadership race in order to find that perfect candidate.
The latest Mainstreet poll suggests the PCAA base is still alive and well. Talk within political circles points to Alberta's Progressive Conservatives being keen on joining forces with the Wildrose in order to defeat the NDP in 2019. The Wildrose membership seems less enthusiastic about a merger, which is why it would take a big name to prove the PCAA's old guard is dead and that the party is capable of forming a truly conservative government.
Enter current Conservative interim leader, Rona Ambrose. It might sound like a fantasy or a bad move to leave federal politics, but it wouldn't be the first time it has happened. Brian Jean did it because he knew he'd never be Prime Minister. Rona's status as interim leader makes her ineligible to run for permanent leadership, unless she resigns a few months before the Conservative leadership race in 2017. So far, there's no indication that will happen. If it did happen, there's not a high likelihood that she'll become Prime Minister any sooner than eight years from now.
As interim leader of the federal Conservatives, Rona has been able to showcase her strength. Not only would she bring strength to the new Conservative Party of Alberta, her experience is backed by an impressive resume that includes Minister Of Health, Minister Of Labour and Minister Of Western Economic Diversification. Ronalee Ambrose is a political powerhouse. With every performance in Question Period, her profile grows along with the case for her leadership. She has held a blowtorch underneath Justin Trudeau since parliament reconvened in December and she has been able to stave off most negative criticisms.
There isn't a single person with a big enough profile or resume to unite Alberta conservatives without a hitch. Not even Jason Kenney has the popularity or brawn to consolidate Alberta conservatives like Rona Ambrose. Ambrose is a small woman with a hard right hook. She's the type that won't back down or draw negative attention while standing her ground. She's undoubtedly the perfect candidate and the perfect antithesis to Rachel Notley.
The most perfect scenario for retaking Alberta would involve Rona Ambrose or someone like her.
Two Paths To Unity
Conventional wisdom suggests that an NDP government should be enough to unite conservatives with ease. However, the province has defied all convention and most wisdom over the past ten years, so there's no reason to think anything will change in 2019. It'll take someone big to make a stable and reliable unification happen.
The process of merging the two conservative parties successfully comes down to timing and a willingness to abandon all delusions of grandeur. The timing requires a PCAA leadership to coincide with the possible federal resignation of Rona Ambrose. Willingness needs to be evident in not only Rona Ambrose but in the Wildrose membership. If the Wildrose and Brian Jean really wanted to make it happen, they'd hold their own leadership contest and invite Ambrose to participate, making the PCAA truly irrelevant.
Without a merger, one party will need to obliterate the other in the 2019 election. As of now, it doesn't look like the Wildrose could pull it off with Brian Jean. As far as I'm concerned, if a merger fails and no heavy hitters enter to save the day, the Wildrose will be my default choice. Convincing Albertans in Calgary and Edmonton to make Brian Jean's Wildrose their default choice might not be as easy.
With the PCs tied in the latest opinion poll – even under their current moustache wielding leader – it doesn't look like urban Albertans will be ditching their old habits. If the PCs can still garner 31% under McIver, there's no telling what percentage they'll garner under a new, more popular leader.
This brings back Jeff Hodgson's suggestion, but in reverse. It's possible that a conservative unification could happen with the complete obliteration of the Wildrose. If the PCAA chooses a popular, willing, well known leader, things will change dramatically. Donors will return, voters will return, and the nostalgia of the Klein era will return with a vengeance. With a complete electoral defeat under their belt, some will say the PCs have learned a valuable lesson. Under new leadership and a new outlook, voters will be willing to give the Progressive Conservatives another chance. A strong Progressive Conservative leader could change everything.
Some have said Alberta's conservatives should focus on principle rather than unity. In any case where there was a 50% chance of defeating an NDP government, I would agree. However, the risks of another NDP mandate in 2019 outweigh the value of sticking to an array of unsettled principles. The only way to ensure Alberta's destruction is by electing another NDP government. If Albertans are shocked by the arrogance and disregard the Notley government has shown in its first four years, just wait until her government wins a second consecutive term.
The by-election in Calgary-Greenway on March 22 could be an indication of where Albertans are willing to go in 2019. If Progressive Conservatives win the seat back, the Wildrose might be out of options. If the Wildrose wins with more than 10%, that might make everything I've said here irrelevant. A slim win of under 5% will prove that Albertans aren't sold on the Wildrose.
A NDP win in Calgary-Greenway would be indicative of a much deeper and troubling problem.