'Battle for the centre' emerges in Alberta as unite-the-right vote succeeds

The 95 per cent approval to merge Alberta's Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties has drawn a mix of reactions from Albertans of all political stripes.

Many questions need to be answered in days and weeks ahead, including the party's leader, policies

Wildrose leader Brian Jean celebrates the yes vote during the unity vote at the Wildrose special general meeting in Red Deer. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press )

The political hangover in Alberta is palpable after the shakeup caused by Wildrose and Progressive Conservative members voting to merge and form the United Conservative Party. 

Many went home ecstatic that victory in the 2019 election now seems within reach with the united conservative front, but others are having a much different reaction to the news. 

Dave Quest is a former PC member of the legislature for the riding of Strathcona-Sherwood Park and was bested by an NDP candidate in the 2015 election. Since the election, he has served as his constituency association's president, but after hearing the results of the weekend's vote, he resigned immediately.

"I firmly believe there is a better option for Strathcona-Sherwood Park, and Alberta than a new right-wing party," Quest said in an email to constituents announcing his resignation. 

"I have always been a social progressive and a fiscal conservative. I don't believe a renamed [Wildrose Party] will embrace the same values I hold dearly."

A home for everyone?

Quest's abandonment of the party matches what some political watchers in the province expect to see as the conservative parties join together. 

"What is the party going to stand for? How is it going to be structured? Is it going to be grassroots like the Wildrose Party was?... All of these questions are going to be sorted out in the next little while," Lori Williams, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said Sunday. 

"The vision for the future of Alberta is still in flux until these matters are settled. And of course the answer to those questions is going to determine support from Albertans more broadly." 
Lori Williams, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University, said Sunday the future of politics will be in flux until the new united party takes shape. (Sarah Lawrynuik/CBC)

Williams said there are a great number of people who clearly are happy with the merger, but she sees room for further political splintering, including the possibility of a right-wing fringe party, but also a "battle for the centre."

"There were people in the ... Progressive Conservative Party — who I don't think participated in this vote — who will be looking for a new home at the centre," she said.

'Politically homeless'

"I think a lot of people woke up this morning feeling politically homeless. A lot of the progressives and Progressive Conservatives were holding out hope that maybe there was a chance still to save the party," said Katherine O'Neill on Sunday. 

O'Neill resigned her position as president of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta in April, and created the provincial political action committee (PAC) called Alberta Together in June. She created the group with hopes of helping those who are feeling displaced, she said. 

"[Before 2015] there was a lot of political stability in Alberta and a lot of people just really didn't think a lot about where they stood politically," she said. Since the 2015 election she's seen a lot of political realignment. 

"People are thinking, 'What are my values? Where do I fit in politically?'"

She pointed to the centrist Alberta Party as the possible alternative. The party currently holds one seat in the legislature. 

Former PC cabinet minister optimistic

Rick Orman cast a ballot in favour of the merger in both the Wildrose and PC votes over the weekend. The former PC cabinet minister said the 95 per cent approval demonstrates there is no issue — small-C conservatives want to unite despite their differences to beat the NDP in 2019. 

"Memberships of both parties said, 'I don't care about the party infrastructure or apparatus, this has to get done if we're going to get rid of the NDP,'" said Orman. 

But Orman said while he is thrilled with the outcome of the members' votes, he knows they aren't out of the woods yet.

"We cannot have a contentious leadership campaign in the new party result in creating divisions again... We run the risk of undoing all of the good things that we've done."

The moves to watch

The question of leadership is what Williams is watching. She said everything else will come from the decision about who will lead this new party.

"That leader and their vision is going to make the difference in terms of what the fortunes of the party are," she said. 

On Monday, an interim leader will be chosen for the party until an Oct. 28 leadership convention.

So far, Brian Jean, leader of the former Wildrose Party, has said he will run for the leadership, while Calgary lawyer Doug Schweitzer announced his candidacy in June.

Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt is also believed to be interested, having formed an exploratory committee.

It's assumed Jason Kenney will throw his hat in the ring, but there's been no confirmation yet. 


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