It probably wasn’t the news Rachel Notley was hoping for early Thursday morning, but Alberta’s premier awoke to a new political reality.
The province’s conservative movement, until now made up of the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties, is getting back together.
The merger was confirmed by sources who spoke with Global News. A news conference featuring Wildrose leader Brian Jean and PC leader Jason Kenney was expected to start at 3 p.m. ET.
For Notley and the provincial NDP, a merger like this — if it works out — could be very problematic.
In late April, a poll revealed that among decided and leaning voters, nearly 30 per cent would cast their ballots for the PCs if an election were held right now. Support for the Wildrose Party was hovering even higher, around 38 per cent in the recent survey, conducted on behalf of the Postmedia newspaper chain.
The governing NDP were languishing in third, with 23 per cent, as the opposition was still hammering Notley on her government’s projected $10.3-billion deficit.
WATCH: Brian Jean on merging PCs and Wildrose following Jason Kenney’s win
The results from the last provincial election are also worth considering. The two right-of-centre parties split the conservative vote in Alberta in 2015 but brought home a combined share of the vote that exceeded 50 per cent. The NDP earned just over 40 per cent and formed the government.
Still, Notley seemed unfazed on Thursday morning when she was asked for her reaction to the news.
“They’ve been talking about (a merger) for a long time, so our thinking continues to be exactly what it’s always been: we are a government that’s focused on making life better for Albertans,” she told reporters.
Both parties want to cut spending for government services, are not “particularly sympathetic or supportive of LGBTQ rights,” and “can’t seem to agree that a school lunch program is a good thing,” the premier added.
“They are a group that are moving increasingly to more and more extreme positions, to the point where they might fall right off the map. And I guess if they do, they’ll have company.”
WATCH: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley reacts to potential PC/Wildrose merger
David Stewart, a professor of political science at the University of Calgary, said Albertans can expect to hear lots more of that kind of talk from their premier.
“In some ways, (the merger) could be an advantage for the NDP,” Stewart noted.
“One of the things that they’re going to try and do now is portray the merged party as far to the right and not where Albertans’ values are. That would have been more difficult to do with, say, a Progressive Conservative party that was un-merged.”
But for Notley to win a second time, he added, Alberta’s economy will need to start looking healthier between now and the next election, “otherwise that’s going to keep attention focused on fiscal issues.”
Finding a leader
A policy platform for the new, merged party has yet to be determined, of course. And it’s not clear who will lead the new conservative entity. Both Kenney and Jean will reportedly run, and whoever wins will set the tone.
“Party policies tend to be very much driven by the leader, so the debate over the new leader … will, in essence, be a debate over the direction of the party,” Stewart said, adding that a third candidate could potentially beat out both Kenney and Jean.
While interim federal Conservative Leader Rona Ambrose was rumoured to be considering a jump to provincial politics, she has denied any such plans.
Speaking with The West Block‘s Vassy Kapelos on Thursday, she confirmed it’s not in the cards.
“If I was going to stay in politics I would stay here,” Ambrose said.
“First and foremost, Jason Kenney is one of my best and dearest friends …. I hope to help if I can. But I’m not running.”
According to Stewart, one of the realities of Alberta politics is that parties are defined to a large extent by their leader.
“The Progressive Conservatives demonstrated that very clearly as they were able to change leaders every time they got a little unpopular and seemed to be able to stay in power.”
Early election call?
The other consideration is the timing of the next provincial election, which is still two years away if nothing changes.
Notley has until between March 1 and May 30, 2019 to call it. A recent spate of spending and program announcements had led to suspicions that she may want to launch the campaign sooner, however.
The government denied this was the case, but if a plan does exist to send Albertans back to the polls ahead of schedule, it could be moved up to take advantage of the window of time before the new, merged party is able to elect a leader and decide on a platform.
“Let’s face it, I mean, the NDP could call an election early if they chose to, if they thought they were going to catch the opposition in disarray,” said NewsTalk 770 host and former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith on Thursday morning.
But Stewart said the NDP may want to pay attention to former PC premier Jim Prentice’s disastrous choice to call an early vote in 2015.
“They moved the election date up, and that became highly unpopular since they’d sort of broken the spirit of the legislation,” he recalled. “But it also raised concerns, that I think turned out to be accurate, that the economy was going to get worse.”