How the Alberta unite-the-right campaign is dividing the Wildrose

A political campaign intended to unify conservative-minded voters in Alberta in a single party, is dividing the very base upon which it hoped to build.

'Some of them ... will hold on to a barf bag, squeeze their noses really tight and vote for it,' says member

Some long-time members of the Wildrose are urging others to reject unity with the PC party. The Wildrose needs 75 per cent approval to pass the agreement. (Terry Reith/CBC)

A political campaign intended to unify conservative-minded voters in Alberta into a single party is dividing the very base upon which it hoped to build.

A bitter "betrayal" is how founding Wildrose member Marilyn Burns characterized party leader Brian Jean's leadership and his efforts to create the United Conservative Party (UCP) with former adversaries in the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta (PCAA).

As for the upcoming unification vote, "I hope it's a no," said Burns from her Edmonton law office.

Marilyn Burns, a founding member of the Wildrose, is already planning a new party should the Wildrose vote to accept unity with the PCs on July 22. (Supplied)

Burns and some other Wildrose constituency association presidents, members, and past executives believe Jean has been secretly working to dissolve the party and merge with the PCs since the fall of 2015.

She suggested Jean wasn't forthright about his intentions to merge with the PCs.

"You can use nice words like 'misled' or 'misrepresented' or 'redirected' or whatever," said Burns.

Earlier this year, Burns tried to have Jean's Wildrose membership revoked for registering the "Conservative Party of Alberta Association" as a society in 2016.

Burns saw it as a direct violation of the Wildrose constitution, which prohibits a member from starting another party.

Burns is not only a founding member of the Wildrose but part of a low-profile and powerful faction spearheading a movement to thwart the July 22 unity referendum, which requires 75-per-cent approval to pass.

Some other long-time members share her discontent, saying they don't like the way the merger proposal process was struck and the vague policies around it. They fear a return to what they see as a political party run by the leaders instead of the "grassroots."

"I'm doing everything I possibly can to convince people to vote against it, " said longtime Wildrose member David Inscho from St. Paul.

Inscho said he sees "no need" to merge with the PCs, and he's working social media networks to spread the word.

But Inscho acknowledged there is a lot of pressure on members to vote in favour of unity.

'Hold on to a barf bag'

"Some of them, even though they are old Wildrosers, will hold on to a barf bag, squeeze their noses really tight and vote for it, and hope the heck it works out right," said Inscho.

Burns said she's getting a lot of phone calls these days from members telling her they're going to vote "no."

"But I wouldn't [bet] a chocolate bar on it either way," said Burns, adding she believes the outcome of the vote is still up in the air, given the influx of new Wildrose members.

"These are not true Wildrose members," said Burns, who thinks the recent swell of Wildrose members came from the PC party.

Wildrose party president Jeff Callaway said he knows things "can go sideways" in politics, but he is confident the unity vote will pass.

Jeff Callaway, president of the Wildrose party, said he'll bet 'more than a chocolate bar,' that members will meet the 75 per cent threshold needed to endorse a merger with the PC party. (CBC)

"I'd definitely bet more than a chocolate bar on it passing," said Callaway. "I'm encouraged."

Callaway said he is aware of the discontent among some party members. But a lot of people have come on board as they learn about the merger agreement, he said.

"[The Wildrose has] always been an evolving party and it's never been a finished project. I view this as just the continuation of that evolutionary process," said Callaway.

New party in the works

Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre Wildrose MLA Jason Nixon, who was part of the merger negotiating team, defends leader Brian Jean, who was not available for an interview.

Nixon said Jean has always been upfront about his desire to find "a dancing partner" to unite conservative parties in Alberta.

"That's not a secret. It's something he was transparent about with the membership of the party," said Nixon.

Nixon added Jean was also clear the members, not the leader, will decide the future of the Wildrose.

Should the Wildrose endorse the unity agreement, Burns said plans are already in the works to build a new party. There will be a founding meeting July 29 in Nisku, followed by a general meeting in the fall and a leadership vote in early 2018, she said.

"We will have a party with a Wildrose framework, policies, principles and objectives — with a different name, unfortunately."