'They had to be rebels': Populism and Alberta's changing conservative politics

Conservatism in Alberta, at the provincial and federal level, has come in many shapes and sizes, been expressed in many ways, since the province was formed in 1905.

From Social Credit, to the Reform Party to the Canadian Alliance. From the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta, to the United Conservative Party, the People's Party of Canada, The Conservative Party of Canada. Also, the Wildrose Party, the Freedom Conservative Party and others.

Each of those parties has held different values and appealed differently to conservative voters. Some have been more populist in outlook and rhetoric than others.

Now "populism" in politics can be a difficult term to nail down; descriptions vary. But it is often described as raising language and policies around the idea of "the people" as opposed to "the elite." And it can apply to both the left and right of the political spectrum. 

People sometimes equate conservative and populist, but while there can be a lot of overlap, they are separate ideas.

In this current federal election campaign, some small-town Alberta conservatives say that while they know who they'll be voting for, the current federal Conservative Party's platform is missing something.

For some voters, three decades of transformational conservative politics, a history of name changes, mergers, fractionalization and policy shifts have left them missing the populist policy and western focus of the Reform Party and Canadian Alliance era of the 1990s and early 2000s.

And the attitude that went with it.

In-your-face attitude

Travel down into southern Alberta, the heartland of our province's rural politics, and it's not too hard to find voters who say conservative policy is taking a back seat to identity politics in the province.

The concern, say these folks, that individual conservative voters are not casting their ballots on the basis of party policy and ideology, but rather because voting conservative is more about who they feel they are.

"I think people kind of miss the attitude," said John Blake, a proud rural conservative and past mayor of Nanton, standing outside one of the town's many antique stores.

Dan McGarvey/CBC

"That in-your-face attitude about 'here's what we're gonna do'."

People like Blake remember the birth of the Reform Party under Preston Manning — how it grew from all-too-familiar feelings of western alienation and discontent but with a national agenda, and how those feelings channeled through the party shaped conservative politics in Canada.

"The West Wants In" was its motto.

"I miss those days, yes I do. I remember," said Nanton resident Alvin Schmunk.

"Now we need to keep oil going, keep people's jobs, keep people's homes," said Schmunk, adding he'd like to see a conservative leader from Western Canada take western interests to Ottawa again one day.

The Reform Party won 52 seats in 1993, mostly in Alberta and B.C.

"They had a point to make at that time, and the way they did it was they had to be rebels, and we're probably going to have to do it again," said Blake.

"The part that people are missing is the presentation is different now," Blake said.

There are those who say that while the rhetoric has changed, so has the policy. 

Populist policies

The policy documents of the Reform Party and the Canadian Alliance included some populist policy: the recall of MPs, referendums, free votes in Parliament and a triple-E Senate.

"It was a major plank of the Reform Party," said Duane Bratt with Mount Royal University's department of policy studies.

"Preston Manning was the populist, Stephen Harper chose conservatism over populism," added Bratt. 

"When Stephen Harper took over as leader of the Alliance, then leader of the federal conservatives and then as prime minister, with the exception of senate reform, none of that came through," said Bratt.

Bratt says that's been the same story right through to today's conservative politics with Andrew Scheer at the helm.

But, according to Bratt, it's a different story at the provincial level, where Albertans do still see that populism continue with the United Conservative Party under Jason Kenney.

Dan McGarvey/CBC

"Jason Kenney was a Reform MP when he was first elected and many other Reformers melded into the Wildrose Party and into the UCP," said Bratt.

"When you look at the platform he ran on it includes the recalling of MLAs, free votes, less party discipline, Senate election and referenda. We haven't seen it enacted but it's in the documents," said Bratt.

While these kind of policies may exist at the provincial level, Bratt says some Alberta voters miss them at the federal conservative level. 

"I think they do. Many of them are the same people, and so they support the provincial conservative party and they support the federal conservative party. It's in the provincial platform but it's not in the federal platform," Bratt said.

But then there's the question not only of the way in which things are said, and whether policies are populist or not, but how much policy itself matters to some individual conservative voters.

An easy decision

Back in Nanton, Blake says for many die-hard conservative Albertans, policy doesn't matter a great deal when it comes to how they vote.

"I'm sad to say probably not," he said. "It's an easy decision here in Alberta."

This goes back to the suggestion that people vote conservative because they see themselves as a person who votes conservative.

Others in the small prairie town also notice how things have changed. And take it further.

Dan McGarvey/CBC

"I don't know if people miss policy because I don't know if they understand that there should be policy," said Marianne Morrison, who is the former corporate services manger for the town.

Morrison says that beyond promises, parties need concrete ideology to make it clear to voters exactly what they're voting for.

"The thing I miss most is it's very hard to see what the policies are now. They spend so much time pointing fingers at each other, actually being very rude and digging up dirt, that the issues of the day are completely masked," she said.

Bratt says conservative policy does still matter in Alberta, especially when it comes to independent and even undecided voters who could still be swayed before election day on Oct. 21.