OPINION | Defeating Jason Kenney will require a progressive merger

This column is an opinion from Max Fawcett, a freelance writer and the former editor of Alberta Oil magazine.

Dave Chidley/The Canadian Press

Jason Kenney, it turns out, is not invincible. 

After two years of bending the political universe to his will, that universe started to fight back in 2019.

His much ballyhooed "war room" keeps finding new and exciting ways to shoot itself in the foot, small business confidence is faltering, and the cuts to health and education spending (and yes, they are cuts) have yet to really bite.

An October poll showed support for the UCP dropping from 56 per cent to 44 per cent, with 21 per cent of the people who voted for the UCP in April expressing dissatisfaction with its performance.

"If this persists and these voters feel as though they were misled, it impacts trust and makes them awfully difficult to win back," ThinkHQ Public Affairs president Marc Henry told the Edmonton Journal.

"They thought there'd be a light at the end of the tunnel, but all they're seeing is more tunnel."

But if Mr. Kenney's progressive opponents are going to defeat him at the polls in the next election, they can't sit around and wait for his government to continue making mistakes. Instead, they'll have to do what Kenney did in the run-up to the last election: put aside their partisan differences and unite behind a single banner.

A toxic brand

That will mean someone putting an end to the Alberta Liberal Party, whose brand is only slightly less toxic in Alberta right now than the Communist Party of Canada's.

The party's current leader, David Khan, finished fourth in his own riding of Calgary-Mountainview in 2019 (one that used to be a reliable Liberal stronghold), while the party itself received just 18,546 votes provincewide, less than one per cent of the popular vote.

"I don't know how much lower they could go," says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University. "Even in the 1980s, when they had zero seats, they didn't get one per cent of the vote."

A diminished brand

The Alberta Party, meanwhile, doesn't seem to know what it stands for — or, right now, if anyone's willing to stand for it. And while the brand itself might have once had value, the fact that it's spent two elections trying to find itself has almost surely diminished that value in the minds of voters.

With no leader, and no real excitement around finding someone to replace Stephen Mandel, it's fair to assume that 2019's performance could be its high-water mark.

"I actually feel bad for the Alberta Party," Bratt says, "because they made huge strides in 2019. They ran candidates in every riding, they increased their fundraising, they participated in the leaders debate and they took their popular vote from two or three per cent to nine per cent. But the absence of that one seat makes a world of difference."

Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press

It's probably tempting to think that the banner progressives should be uniting behind is the orange one, since that's essentially what happened in both 2015 and 2019. But even so, the NDP wouldn't have been able to form government in 2015 without the split on the right between the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta and the Wildrose Party.

Without that split in play, and with a four-year track record as a government that happens to coincide with a collapse in oil and gas prices, the NDP brand may not be in much better shape than the Liberal one.

The fact that many Albertans blame the NDP for an economic downturn that was driven by huge changes in global oil and gas markets is neither fair nor rational, but nobody ever said politics was either of those things. After all, Donald Trump is president of the United States.

A new alliance

That's why Alberta needs a new progressive alliance, one that can offer a home to everyone who doesn't support the current government's policies and personalities.

And while a rebrand might seem to some New Democrats like an admission of defeat, it's often the shortest path to power.

In addition to the UCP, there's the B.C. Liberal Party, which was effectively taken over by Social Credit members after their government was drubbed by the NDP in the 1991 provincial election. The B.C. Liberals would go on to govern for most of the 21st century before they were defeated in 2017 — and even then, they won the popular vote and the most seats.

In Saskatchewan, meanwhile, the Progressive Conservative Party emerged from the ashes of the scandal-ridden Grant Devine era in 1997 as the Saskatchewan Party — and eventually formed government in 2007. 

The Alberta NDP was far more scandal-proof in office than either of those two parties, but it still faces the same branding challenge that Alberta Liberals have struggled with for decades. And like those Liberals, that's less a result of anything they've done than the behaviour of their federal cousins.

For example, the NDP held its national convention in Edmonton in 2016, and used the opportunity to undercut the only provincial NDP government in the country at the time.

In an interview with the CBC's Peter Mansbridge, then-leader Tom Mulcair said he'd support a policy to keep Canada's oil in the ground if members passed it — a statement that only confirmed the suspicions many Albertans still had about the provincial NDP's attitude toward the oil and gas industry.

Jagmeet Singh, the leader who replaced Mulcair, has been even more antagonistic toward Alberta's energy sector, pledging repeatedly (and impotently) to block the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline.

Notley hugely popular

If the NDP brand and its association with federal leaders and policies is a bit of an albatross, though, its leader surely isn't.

Rachel Notley remains a hugely popular politician in Alberta, one whose appeal and reach vastly exceeds that of her party.

In the run-up to the last election, Notley consistently polled higher than the NDP itself — often by double-digits. And it's that popularity, particularly within the party, that makes political strategist Stephen Carter think she could be the one to convince them to take the kind of leap they'll almost certainly need in order to win the next election: a full break with the federal party and the birth of a new political vehicle in its place.

"I think the Alberta Democrats could be something that would be phenomenal," he says.

Dean Bennett/The Canadian Press

Carter isn't convinced that there needs to be a formal merger between the various progressive parties in Alberta.

"The population won't split. If the population really wants to defeat Kenney, they will choose one horse and ride it to the finish line."

But, he says, they'll be far more likely to saddle up with a party that doesn't have any pre-existing baggage. And ironically, he thinks part of that baggage is the NDP's conspicuous swing to the centre when it was in government.

"I think they were a very responsible government, in terms of what they actually did. But they didn't give anybody any real reason to love them. You're not going to get anywhere by relaxing the craft brewing laws. They needed to do something more significant — that actually impacted regular human beings."

New voices needed

More importantly, he says, if the Alberta Democratic Party is to succeed, it would need to be willing to allow new voices at the decision-making tables: "You never grow a political movement without reaching outside."

He remembers being approached to run the leadership campaign of Alison Redford and agreeing, provided a certain individual wasn't involved. That individual had the same condition for their own participation, but eventually the two met and realized they worked well together.

"If I'd been successful in my small-mindedness," Carter says, "I never would have had that power and strength that comes from working with someone who mildly disagrees with you — or in some cases even moderately disagrees with you, and pushes you to a new position that is better and stronger. I would argue that was the problem with the NDP, and that remains the problem with the NDP."

Another problem is the temptation to believe that what happened in 2015 could happen again in 2023 — namely, a split of the conservative vote. But betting on a breakup of Jason Kenney's conservative coalition might be even more foolish than expecting him to lose outright, according to Duane Bratt.

"There are some early indications of splits within the UCP, but he's just such a force of nature, and a force of will, that he's got his hands over that," Bratt says.

That means that if progressives want to win the next election, they'll have to put aside their misgivings and tribal loyalties and find a way to work together.

That will require Alberta Liberals to finally let their beleaguered brand die. It will mean formalizing a divorce between Alberta's New Democrats and their federal cousins. And it will force the Alberta Party's members and donors to give up on their own new brand and endorse an even newer one.

The alternative, of course, is a re-elected UCP government. Time will tell which option Alberta's progressives find more unpalatable. 

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