Alberta’s conservatives hate Alberta’s other conservatives
As he threw in his hat for the Progressive Conservative leadership on Wednesday, Jason Kenney’s call to Alberta conservatives was simple: Unite the right, or endure another “catastrophic” NDP victory.
But as any Albertan knows, Kenney is wading into a vicious right-wing python’s nest from which he may never emerge. Below, a brief primer on why nobody hates an Albertan conservative quite like another Alberta conservative.
A lot of this started with Premier Ed Stelmach around 2008. His government proposed a series of land-use policies that, among other things, streamlined the government’s ability to expropriate private land. This was good news for anybody who wanted to build a new highway or powerline right-of-way without a lot of paperwork. It was also good news for anyone who wanted to found an upstart conservative party for incensed Albertans who don’t take kindly to people taking their land.
Like many North American conservatives, the Wildrose are anti-establishment, small-government types. And there’s nothing more establishment than a party that governed Alberta for almost as long as the communists governed East Germany. Much like a grimey, overpriced steakhouse still coasting on its former glory, the Wildrose argument is that the PCs are an ideologically lazy “power club” staffed by potted plants.
Most of the Alberta right wing can agree that the NDP are simply aliens from some weird lefty planet. They wear hats on their feet, they remove their faces at night and they can’t be reasoned with — only contained. But when a Wildroser looks into the face of a Progressive Conservative and vice versa, they see a warped version of themselves. It’s like Dorian Gray gazing with horror into his disfigured oil portrait; the general shape and identity is the same, but the image is corrupted.
Many PCs suspect that the Wildrose is full of drunken, gay-bashing hicks. And every once in a while, their suspicions are confirmed. Most infamously, during the 2012 election a Wildrose candidate was found to have declared that homosexuals will “suffer the rest of eternity in a lake of fire.” It’s similar to the Jean Chretien-dominated 1990s, when tweed-wearing Ontario Tories worried about making common cause with Stockwell “Young Earth creationist” Day. Alberta PCs, in essence, fear a future in which their conventions reek of diesel fuel and are filled with gay jokes.
The PC’s plan to keep Alberta a one-party state would have worked perfectly if it wasn’t for those meddling Wildrose. The combined conservative vote in the 2015 election was 52 per cent; more than enough to bury the 40.5 per cent won by Rachel Notley. So naturally, there’s a lot of finger-pointing that the NDP (and the the carbon tax and the $15 minimum wage and the rising deficit, etc.) is all the Wildrose’s fault.
In their waning years in power, the PCs had “no meet” committees where MLAs would earn an extra $1,000 per month for meetings that they never attended. There were mysterious billion-dollar sole-sourced contracts and accusations that the party was pulling in thousands of dollars in illegal campaign donations from taxpayer-funded agencies. Roll it all together, and the general perception among Wildrosers is that you just can’t trust a Progressive Conservative. This perception was not helped when, just before the last election, Jim Prentice somehow managed to secretly convince most of the Wildrose caucus to defect to the PCs. You’d be paranoid too.
For more than a generation, Alberta has had no place for ambitious progressives to go. So, they bought a cowboy hat, slipped into the PCs and started opening their speeches with maxims like “I will put the progressive in Progressive Conservative.” Many of these liberals are still there, and that includes the likes of former deputy premier Thomas Lukaszuk, who has said that Jason Kenney shouldn’t even be allowed to run for the PC leadership. The Wildrose, which has no progressive wing, fear these Red Tories as a dangerous fifth column. The Red Tories, in turn, fear Jason Kenney as a closeted Wildroser.
Another point of contention that started with Stelmach. The PCs kicked off a royalty review to figure out if they couldn’t get a bigger share of all the black gold coming out of Athabasca. The newly founded Wildrose, in turn, were showered with support by an outraged oil sector — some of whom threatened to leave and find better oil sands somewhere else. However, this may not be as big of an issue anymore. The NDP campaigned hard on the need to raise royalty rates. And then, in January, they declared that everything is actually fine. “It is not the time to reach out and make a big money grab,” said Rachel Notley.
There’s no way around this: the Progressive Conservatives have pissed away obscene, Mike Tyson-level amounts of money. How else to explain that a province situated on top of an ocean of oil managed to rack up an 11-figure debt. Everybody knows about the secret penthouses and all the questionable aircraft flights, but the PCs can also lay claim to a bloated public sector, a curiously expensive healthcare system and giant, high-ceilinged monuments to virtually every fragment of Alberta history or culture that could fill an interpretive centre. This isn’t a tremendously conservative legacy.
In Alberta, intra-conservative resentment is in the blood—literally. Since the 1960s, marriages and social circles have been carefully herded to either side of the right-wing rift. There are young men who have never forgiven how the Progressive Conservatives wronged their grandparents. There are young women who vowed to their dying fathers that they would never abide a Red Tory. Ralph Klein once dismissed the Reform Party as a “pimple on an elephant’s butt.” A young Reform-minded Jason Kenney, in turn, called Klein a reckless MLA pension spendthrift. In short, these aren’t petty squabbles that can be solved with a couple Unite the Right pub nights.
Jason Kenneyâ€™s burden: A primer on why Albertaâ€™s conservatives hate Albertaâ€™s other conservatives