Alberta: Who Will Lead Conservatives?

July 24th, 2017 | R. Rados
united conservatives alberta

Alberta's two conservative parties merged almost unanimously on July 22 with a 95% consensus on both sides. That beat my own optimistic prediction that unification would happen with around 80% on both sides. Now that the complicated part and all the fears and doubts are out of the way, it's time to pick a leader. Who the United Conservatives pick to be their leader will either make or break the party's fortunes against Rachel Notley in 2019. Alberta conservatives shouldn't be too confident, because with the wrong leader, we could end up with four more years of NDP destruction. Notley's approval ratings may be low now, but election campaigns can change the collective mindset almost overnight. So can economic upticks, frivolous scandals and foots in mouths.

This is what the ideal United Conservative leadership race would look like. Feel free to agree or disagree as viciously as you'd like.

The Red Menace: Brian Jean

Brian Jean will likely be one of the top contenders for leadership. His run will add strength to the new party's leadership race but, if he wins, the party's chances of beating Notley will shrink.

I call him a menace not because he'd be a menace to Notley's NDP, but because he'd be a menace to the United Conservative cause. This might sound like a contentious and antagonizing way to start a list, but Brian Jean simply doesn't have what it takes to beat Notley or to be what the new party needs.

A win was in the cards for Jean's Wildrose in 2015 until he blew it. His party could have won a minority at worst and a slim majority at best. Instead, Jean went on a cross-provincial tour that consisted of cheap theatrics and repetitive slogans. He cut up giant fake credit cards with a chainsaw, repeated certain phrases so much that they became meaningless, and then put the icing on the cake during the leaders debate against Notley and Prentice. Don't believe me?

The leaders debate happened on April 23, 2015. On April 22, the Wildrose were averaging between 31% and 34% in most opinion polls. That still wasn't a very strong number, but it put them in minority territory. By the week of April 25, the Wildrose sank to an average of 25% and never recovered. On May 5, the Progressive Conservatives beat the Wildrose in popular support 28-24%. Brian Jean performed so badly in the debate that his party lost 10% in most opinion polls—overnight. The fact that his party could never break its 35% glass ceiling is a testament to his leadership abilities. In contrast, Notley's NDP rose consistently in opinion polls from the beginning of the campaign until the very end.

Jean's antics since the election only confirm the fact that he shouldn't be the United Conservative party's first leader. He has condemned innocent social media postings by Wildrose MLAs and employees, feigned outrage about movie screenings and student groups, suggested an end to “hard right” governments in Alberta and suspended one of his most popular MLAs for making a mistake on social media. Brian Jean is not the guy to lead the United Conservatives, but his leadership run will be important and worthwhile for the party as a whole.

The Boss: Jason Kenney

The guy who put the whole unity movement into motion will likely be one of the top contenders. Jason Kenney is highly competent, efficient and Machiavellian. He'd likely deny the last part for obvious reasons, but when things need to get done, Jason Kenney gets them done. When the Progressive Conservative establishment needed to be put in its place and purged, Kenney got the job done. When Progressive Conservatives needed to fall in line to support unity, Jason Kenney put them in line.

His antics since winning the leadership have been similar to Jean's, but the big difference is that Kenney knows how to win. Yes, he has feigned outrage when it didn't need to be feigned—like toward an anti-tax rally at the Edmonton legislature that devolved into “lock her up” chants—but Jason Kenney might be able to pull that kind of thing off in moderation, from time to time, and still win.

When it comes to being outspoken, Kenney isn't afraid. He even uses social media in the same way Naheed Nenshi and Donald Trump do to take shots at critics. When it comes to debating, Kenney is a pro. His performances in several Progressive Conservative leadership debates were noteworthy and effective. When it comes to being measured and strategic, Kenney knows what he's doing—for the most part, but not always. Being outside of Alberta for so long might have put him out of touch with what Albertans need, but he'll learn quickly.

Jason Kenney wouldn't be an automatic win against Notley. He is, after all, white and male. He'll give the hyper-progressive NDP a lot to work with just by being what he is. His gender and race will suddenly matter to hordes of left-wing zealots who will accuse him of being racist, sexist and homophobic based on the fantasies they make up in their own heads. His history as a more right-leaning social conservative could also bode poorly. Whether Kenney can beat Notley will rely on his ability to be measured, focused and smart. If he trips up, he could lose.

The Firebrand: Derek Fildebrandt

I don't know much about Derek Fildebrandt's ethnicity, but my own educated guess suggests his name is German and means something along the lines of “burning field” or “something fire”, if it's not just another regional name based on nothing. I could be totally wrong, but it wouldn't change the fact that Derek Fildebrandt has been known to light things on fire and throw fireballs.

Fildebrandt is one of the most popular, but most polarizing Wildrose MLAs in Alberta. This would hurt him as much as it helps him if he were to win the party's first leadership. His outspoken nature dates back to his days as the director of the Alberta Taxpayers Federation, when he'd engage in Twitter battles with Naheed Nenshi and spend time on the news criticizing wasteful spending in government. Fildebrandt has built a reputation for himself, but whether that reputation would help him beat Notley is a bit sketchy.

I was an early advocate of a Fildebrandt leadership bid for the Wildrose. He was probably talked out of seeking leadership by old party cronies like Vitor Marciano, who wanted Brian Jean to parachute in from Ottawa. Somewhere, at some point, someone probably convinced Derek Fildebrandt to win a seat rather than run for leadership first. He did and—as we've witnessed—an obvious power struggle has emerged involving Brian Jean and Fildebrandt. This probably had more to do with Fildebrandt's suspension last year than his mistaken post on social media.

Fildebrandt's chances of winning leadership are slim against Kenney and Jean. From my own observations and some unscientific polling, I've seen Fildebrandt taking votes from both Kenney and Jean, meaning that his chances of splitting the Wildrose vote to favour Jason Kenney are minimal. Fildebrandt poses as much of a risk to Kenney as he does to Jean, but not enough to either of them to win it for himself. If Fildebrandt were to win, it would be in a more crowded field of candidates. In a three-way race with Kenney and Jean, Fildebrandt's chances are small.

Then again, effective campaigns can change everything. In case of a Fildebrandt leadership win, we shouldn't expect an easy win against Notley. In fact, with Fildebrandt as leader, beating Notley might be a steeper climb than it would be with Jean or Kenney. Fildebrandt's polarizing reputation makes him susceptible to traditional progressive attacks about sexism, misogyny, homophobia and various other isms. Unfortunately, he has a laundry list of contentious comments and behaviour for the NDP to choose from. Against Notley, a Fildebrandt win would be tricky and it would all depend on how the party sells him.

The Neutralizer: Leela Aheer

I know we all hate identity politics, but the NDP will always resort to attacks on identity. Being white and male is an inherent disadvantage against Rachel Notley's NDP. That's just the way the playing field is right now. In order to change the rules and the field's design, the United Conservatives will need to win. In order to win, the United Conservatives will need to adapt.

Leela Aheer is a lesser known MLA who represents Chestermere-Rocky View. She isn't white or male and her status as a visible minority would help the United Conservative leadership race with optics, whether she wins or loses. If she wins the leadership, the new party will have elected a minority female and made history from the very start. This would gain headlines and make Rachel Notley's arguments about bigotry and misogyny less effective.

Leela Aheer would neutralize most of the NDP's identity based attacks on the United Conservative party. The NDP could try to make her seem like a puppet of white conservatives, but would just end up making themselves look racist. Something similar happened when Barack Obama became president and people like Ralph Nader called him an “Uncle Tom”. The only person hurt by those comments was Ralph Nader.

Choosing Leela Aheer to be the new leader of the United Conservatives wouldn't just be about identity, it would be about her competence and skill. She is a rural kid who grew up among oil men and farmers—as per her own words. She has studied political science at the University Of Calgary, taken a solo trip to India, started successful businesses and won an election. Aheer has everything that it would take to lead a brand new political party into the future. Once Albertans get to know Aheer, she'll become the ideal candidate and Rachel Notley's most formidable opponent.

The True Conservative: Drew Barnes

A lot of Wildrosers remember Drew Barnes from the party's last leadership race, where he was defeated by Brian Jean 55-40%. Barnes ran a campaign that catered to the party's grassroots and stuck to basic principles like property rights, lower taxes and entrepreneurship. He wasn't a big name who used theatrics and empty slogans, but he still managed to win 40% of the membership's support.

Barnes is the MLA for Cypress-Medicine Hat and has had moments of strength in the Alberta legislature while standing up against Notley's nonsense. If there's anything Barnes isn't, it's weak. He can hold his own in a debate, remain cool and unleash hell when necessary. Watch videos of him performing in the legislature if you don't believe me. He has a degree in Commerce and ran a real estate office for nearly 30 years. All of these things make Drew Barnes a formidable challenger and capable leader.

Barnes might not have the fame, notoriety or rock solid charisma that some might think is required, but his leadership run would be healthy for the new party. Barnes would represent the rural entrepreneurs and grassroots conservatives in ways that Jean and Kenney can't. Whether he wins or loses, his candidacy would give a whole group of low-key rural conservatives representation within the party.

That's Enough

Five candidates in a provincial leadership race are more than enough. Some might argue that it's two too many. If the field happens to grow any bigger than that, it'll be difficult to find unity and the race itself could become too messy. We don't need hordes of candidates crowding a debate stage and getting one minute to speak. We need a small, tight, clean race in which candidates can express their visions coherently.

There's no telling yet if all of these candidates will run, or if bigger and smaller names will enter. There could be a big, well-known personality silently plotting a takeover or a small, lesser known person who wants to make a name for themselves. I never bothered mentioning Doug Schweitzer because I don't think his campaign will gain any real traction. He started his campaign with identity politics and attacks on Alberta. Schweitzer's positions have already gained the ire of conservatives and made it likely that his campaign won't last beyond sundown. If Schweitzer is willing to waste people's time and his own money (or progressive money) by staying in the race, the consequences are his to own.

The only two candidates who we know will absolutely run and raise massive sums of money are Jason Kenney and Brian Jean. If the race comes down to only the two of them, prospects for the new party will be a bit less bright. The United Conservatives need more diversity when it comes to principle and thought. A lot of conservatives now dwell under this new, big blue tent and Brian Jean and Jason Kenney can't represent them all. We need more candidates.