UCP caucus revolt latest in a long history of splintering conservative parties in Alberta

The history of conservative parties in Canada exhibits a pattern of splintering and merging at both the national and provincial levels. This is most pronounced in Alberta, say political scientists Duane Bratt and Bruce Foster.

There is something peculiar about the culture of Alberta and its right-of-centre party politics

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney faced a caucus revolt last week when 17 UCP MLAs endorsed a public letter condemning the government's latest COVID-19 restrictions. As Duane Bratt and Bruce Foster write, intra-party fights among conservatives is nothing new in Alberta. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion from Duane Bratt and Bruce Foster, political scientists at Mount Royal University in Calgary. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Last week, a caucus revolt enveloped the Jason Kenney government in Alberta.

A group of 17 United Conservative Party MLAs, all from outside the large cities of Calgary and Edmonton, endorsed a public letter on Wednesday condemning the COVID-19 restrictions that were reintroduced by Premier Kenney. This caucus revolt, which has been brewing for months, has considerable potential to lead to a splintering of the UCP. 

This revolt was not due solely to provincial COVID-19 restrictions (which have hit all of Canada), nor was it triggered by the sizable drop in popularity of the Kenney government, as seen in multiple polls. After all, the approval ratings of the Pallister government in Manitoba and the Ford government in Ontario have also shown a strong decline. Yet, those government caucuses are not facing revolts from within.

Moreover, this revolt appears not to be about public opinion splits regarding COVID-19 restrictions.

Public opinion polls show that the minority of Albertans who are opposed to COVID-19 restrictions are concentrated in rural parts of the province, and ideologically, further to the right on the political spectrum. But, we find this same ideological/rural opposition to pandemic restrictions in Saskatchewan, and this comes without any internal threats to the leadership of Premier Scott Moe.

An Alberta-made battle

As we are not seeing similar revolts in the six other provinces governed by conservative parties, we suggest that the UCP's internal fracturing is not entirely a matter of the ideological disposition of the government. Rather, this is an Alberta-made internecine battle over the type, intensity, and direction of conservative policy-making, and the inability of Premier Kenney to contain and accommodate the variety of right-wing perspectives within the party.

We have previously argued that the history of conservative parties in Canada exhibits a pattern of splintering and merging at both the national and provincial levels. This is most pronounced in Alberta.

There were failed merger attempts between Alberta's Social Credit party and Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta (PCPA) in 1966, and the Wildrose Party of Alberta (WRP) and the PCPA in 2014. 

More recently, the WRP and the PCPA successfully merged to form the United Conservative Party (UCP) in 2017. In less than two years then, the UCP went from an idea to merge two (sometimes hostile) conservative parties, to winning an overwhelming majority of seats in the Alberta provincial election by April 16, 2019.

However, as the recent caucus revolt suggests, the UCP, like all other right-of-centre parties in Alberta, is vulnerable to splintering apart.

Former Alberta Premier Jim Prentice and former Wildrose party Leader Danielle Smith speak to media in Edmonton in December 2014, after Smith and eight other party members crossed the floor of the provincial legislature and merged with the Tories. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

A major question for us is this: Why does this splintering and merging occur more frequently within conservative parties in Alberta than elsewhere in the country?

There has been no shortage of scholarly examinations of Alberta's "unique" blend of fiscal conservatism, social conservatism, and American-style right-populism. Does this uniqueness lend itself to the constant (or inevitable) splintering and merging of right-wing parties in the province to a degree not experienced elsewhere?

Even at the level of national politics, the Alberta influence has been instrumental in shaping and re-shaping right-of-centre parties. In recent memory, the Reform Party of Canada, a largely Alberta-based, right-populist outfit challenging the conservative status quo at the national level, went from a fringe party to Official Opposition, to internal fracturing, and, in time, a major pillar of the current Conservative Party of Canada.

We note that today, the challenge to the Conservative Party is the fringe Maverick party.

Though not always successful, the same pattern of fringe party formation and dissension is a constant feature of Alberta politics. Historically, the Western Canada Concept, the Alberta Alliance, the WRP, and currently, the Wildrose Independence Party, all provided ample evidence of the ubiquity of this pattern.

Preston Manning was intimately involved in several splinter/merger efforts at both federal and provincial levels.

More receptive to populism

In his telling, this constant churn in conservative party machinations is due in large part to the settler-society patterns of Alberta, and, in no small measure, the arrival of settlers from the American Midwest to southern Alberta in the early 20th century.

According to Manning, Alberta is the newest part of the country, and its political parties were and remain more receptive to populist influences and demands. Alberta also manifests a more entrepreneurial spirit, due in large measure to the relative lack of 'old money' with its attendant elites and benefactors, as is common in central Canada.

Albertans are not as wedded to old ideas or to old parties, reasoned Manning, and remain more open to political reinvention than in other parts of the country.

Add to this the long-held skepticism, and occasional hostility of Albertans toward central Canada and the national government, and you have a pointedly un-conservative proclivity for constant change and ferment among conservative parties.

Alberta's penchant for expressing harsh dissatisfaction with the political status quo, and giving birth to a variety of protest movements and parties, infuses its brand of conservatism with an unsettled, perhaps non-doctrinal quality, where parties of long standing can suddenly find themselves under considerable pressure from upstart movements.

Not content to endure the economic, ideological or party system status-quo to the extent of their central Canadian cousins, Albertans have demonstrated a willingness to engage in a form of creative destruction of the party system.

Manning, who regards this dynamic as both a characteristic and a necessity of Alberta right-wing politics, referred to this as changing the "containers of conservatism."

Reform Party leader Preston Manning speaks to a rally in 1991. Manning was intimately involved in several splinter/merger efforts at both federal and provincial levels. (Bill Becker/The Canadian Press)

In other provinces, when conservatives gather to strategize, they are focused on their political opponents in the Liberal and/or NDP parties. But because of the sustained electoral dominance of conservative parties in Alberta (both federally and provincially) opponents were often found within an ostensible outlier wing of their own party. Internal party disagreements were thus as consequential, sometimes more so, than the differences between the parties themselves.

If these disruptive "containers of conservatism" are not managed properly, one faction of a party could well break away and form their own more doctrinally-agreeable organization.

The more strident fiscal and social conservatives in both the Reform Party and Alberta's Wildrose Party did just that, once they had distinguished themselves from what they saw as the left-leaning federal and provincial PCs.

Today, when we read the public complaints from Drew Barnes and other members of the UCP rebel caucus members, we hear similar complaints about how the Kenney UCP has turned its back on the (largely rural-based) conservative ethos, and drifted dangerously to the left.

A game of chicken

What we have characterized as an historical constant in Alberta conservative politics still exhibits compelling, and disruptive, signs of life.

At this moment, there is something of a game of chicken going on within the UCP caucus. The rebels have not crossed the floor to sit as independents; they have not joined the Wildrose Independence Party; nor are there signs that these folks want to create a new conservative party – at least not yet.

Significantly, Premier Kenney has not expelled them from the UCP caucus. That said, this impasse is inherently unstable, and hinders the ability of the premier to govern the province.

At the level of civil society during the pandemic, this internal revolt may further embolden some Albertans to disobey existing COVID-19 restrictions. The result of such actions may also constrain the ability of the government to impose further restrictions as COVID-19 cases, and thus hospitalizations, may well increase.

It is also possible that the UCP will begin to splinter. At the very least, the seeds of internal fracturing have now been forcefully planted.

But as we have witnessed over and over again, this splintering, if and when it occurs, and whatever the consequences it will bring, is a fundamental part of Alberta conservative politics.

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Duane Bratt and Bruce Foster (recently retired) are both political scientists at Mount Royal University in Calgary.