In 2017, the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties in Alberta joined forces to form the United Conservative Party. That meant it included MLAs on a wider range of the political spectrum.
But back then, the economy was stronger and all Alberta conservatives had a common goal of defeating the NDP, explained Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt, and the divisions were more easily glossed over.
Now, the climate is a little different and those factions are much harder to ignore.
It’s more than just having UCP members who are more progressive and ones who are more moderate, Bratt added.
“You also have an urban-rural split, you have a social conservative versus a fiscal conservative split, you have those who simply want to govern versus those who want to radically transform the province, and getting all those people all on one page is very difficult.
“Jason Kenney and others were able to merge the parties basically because the one thing that united them was opposition to Rachel Notley and the NDP.
“But then, when they formed government, those divisions emerged back again and were greatly exacerbated by COVID — but were not caused by COVID.”
Wednesday night, a leadership review vote found only 51.4 per cent of voting UCP members supported Jason Kenney as leader. Shortly after the results were shared, Kenney announced his intention to resign.
“The past two years were deeply divisive for our province, our party and our caucus,” he said Wednesday night. “But it is my fervent hope that in the months to come, we all move on past the division of COVID.”
“I’m not sure that that glue — hostility towards the NDP — is sufficient to keep this party together,” Bratt said. “It is not united.
“And I think this forthcoming leadership race will test that even more. If someone of the experience, work, ethic and competencies of a Jason Kenney couldn’t do this, who could?”
So far, two former leaders of the Wildrose Party have signalled their intention run for the leadership: Danielle Smith and Brian Jean. Both spoke of unity in the wake of Kenney’s announcement.
“We need to unite this party,” Jean said on Thursday morning. “We need to renew it.
“You find those things that people want to agree on, that people see as being the pinnacle of what we need to do in order to move forward together. It’s called compromise.”
Smith said new faces in the leadership race would be “energizing,” but also said she wanted to “bring some folks back into the fold.” Smith said she’d like to see Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes throw their hats into the ring. Independent MLAs Loewen and Barnes were kicked out of UCP caucus one year ago after calling for Kenney’s resignation.
“Part of the judgement of the grassroots yesterday was that as much as the premier had hoped that he had balanced lives and livelihoods during the course of COVID, there were many that felt he didn’t get that right balance,” she told reporters on Thursday.
“We need to stop dividing people along identity lines — vaxxed, unvaxxed — or any of the various identity politics that we’ve seen play out over the past few years. We are stronger untied. I think that also holds for our conservative movement.
“We’re facing a formidable Opposition in the legislature that’s unified and we cannot see a fracturing of the conservative movement along the lines of multiple different political movements,” Smith said.
But Bratt says that’s exactly what’s happening.
“You’ve got the Buffalo Party, the Wildrose Independent… Drew Barnes is talking about a Rural Alberta Party — sort of a Wildrose 2.0.”
Once the UCP elects a new leader, the losing candidates have a choice to make, Bratt said.
“I think they pack up and they go home and they start another party or they join an existing party.
“If Kenney had survived, you would have seen this exodus occur much more quickly. Now I think there will be a holding pattern while we go through a leadership race.
“But once that race is over, and we see who the new UCP leader is, then I think that exodus starts anew. We just don’t know which direction it’s going to go. That depends on who wins the leadership,” Bratt said.
Loewen said Kenney announcing he’d step down was just the first step of many and he hopes to see the UCP “keep going on the right track.”
He said Thursday afternoon he doesn’t know yet know if he’ll rejoin the UCP.
“There’s been a lot of politicians in Alberta who’ve been kind of riding the fence, being a little bit wishy washy. Constituents see that as weakness and they feel that they’re not being represented when their elected representatives don’t pick a side, pick a lane, and stick with it.”
Loewen isn’t ruling out a leadership run or joining a different conservative party.
“There are several parties on the right side of the political spectrum right now. If Jason Kenney does go, and there’s a change in direction in the UCP, I think those parties will have a hard time gaining any traction.
“This was step one. If that’s where it stops, I think we do risk having more parties start on the right side of the political spectrum and justifiably so if this party can’t seem to get it together.”
Barnes said Kenney stepping down allows “for a fresh start, both for the UCP and for the province.”
In a news release Thursday, he said he’d be prepared to rejoin the UCP caucus when a new interim leader is in place.
“With a new premier, the UCP can begin turning the page on the mistakes of the past three years and rededicate itself to unity through our shared principles,” Barnes said.
Bratt pointed out Alberta used to have premiers who stayed in power for a long time — over a decade in several cases.
“But since the leadership review over Ralph Klein, it’s just been one after another.
“We also have a situation of conservative parties splintering and coming together and splintering again. Governing Conservatives provincially and federally is very difficult.”
And a splintering conservative party in Alberta only helps one person, he says.
“I think this helps Rachel Notley. I think Rachel Notley, if asked, would say she loves as many conservative parties as possible,” Bratt said.
“They got 40 per cent of the vote in 2015 but they also got a lot of key vote splits between Wildrose and PCs that allowed them to win seats particularly in Calgary and parts of rural Alberta.”
The Wildrose and PCs announced their plan to merge almost exactly five years ago — on May 18, 2017.
Alberta’s next provincial general election is scheduled to be held between March 1 and May 31, 2023.