Uniting the right, Alberta-style

Globe and Mail
January 15, 2008

Followers of political history might keep an eye ajar this weekend when members of Alberta’s fourth party vote to merge with the latest creation of a province renowned as an intellectual incubator.

Awaiting the 75-per-cent approval of their membership are the newborn Wildrose party and the Alberta Alliance, whose blue and green colours are an obvious display of affection for the old Canadian Alliance and Reform parties. The Alberta Alliance gained its first MLA in 2004, when Edmonton Norwood’s Gary Masyk crossed the floor to the opposition benches after a falling-out with the Conservative government.

Mr. Masyk did not return to the legislature after the election several months later but, interestingly enough, the Alliance did when the people of Cardston-Taber-Warner elected Paul Hinman as their MLA. He has served as the Alliance’s leader ever since and — notwithstanding the Alliance’s open courtship of Preston Manning — is designated to be the new Wildrose Alliance Party leader in the next provincial election, expected in March.

With a little puck luck, Mr. Hinman could have had a couple of companions in the legislature. His party closely contested a number of rural ridings in 2004 and more often than not finished third in Calgary, ahead of the New Democrats. Overall, the Alliance snagged 9 per cent of the popular vote despite virtually no media profile, compared to the well-exposed New Democrats, whose 10-per-cent share of the popular vote translated into four MLAs, all from Edmonton.

But while the Alliance may have the hearts of many of Alberta’s true conservatives, as they like to call themselves, conventional wisdom is that it is not sufficiently resourced to be able to grow.

Enter the Wildrose Party, which by late 2007 had gathered enough signatures to qualify for official party status. It has drawn the allegiance of a number of credible people from outside the two big cities. But its best known face is that of Link Byfield, erstwhile magazine publisher, columnist, senator-elect and generally respected purveyor of Alberta ideas and causes. Eschewing positions on hot-button social issues, Wildrose has focused on an agenda favouring small government, low taxes and policy innovations, such as the creation of an Alberta Pension Plan. Even those who may not share the Wildrose world view will find them a relatively straightforward read.

A smooth merger cannot be assumed. After all, the downside of parties of principle, whether their cause be left, right or environmental, is that the strength of their principles creates an organic disability when it comes to what some call compromise and others refer to as moral flexibility.

Should these two small fish emerge as one, they will still be a small fish, one likely to poll in the 12-per-cent range. While clearly siphoning voters that once formed the vanguard of the Klein Revolution away from the Progressive Conservatives, this is not enough to constitute a threat to gain power. But – similar to the NDP – this pull is enough to form a principled power proposition that would force those in the “middle,” such as the opposition Liberals and governing Conservatives, to create a stronger policy identity than they might otherwise.

In fact, a successful merger creates the possibility that, similar to the Saskatchewan Party to the east, the Wildrose Alliance might be the start of Alberta’s Next Big Thing. This is a province, after all, that spawned the CCF, United Farmers and Reform. Not all new ideas succeed as well as those did, but the culture here has always been more open than most to considering new options. And, remember, when change comes to Alberta, which admittedly isn’t often, it always comes from beyond the status quo.

This probably isn’t the moment of that change. But it could be the occasion that starts the process that leads to the moment. Just in case it is, it’s worth staying awake for.

Peter Menzies is past publisher of The Calgary Herald and a senior fellow with the Work Research Foundation.