The ideological war between Conservative factions can only be won at the ballot box

This is not a dispute that can be decided in backroom deals by party activists, writes farmer and blogger David Cymbaluk.

The stress of the COVID crisis has brought internal party divisions to the forefront

Jason Kenney celebrates his victory as the first official leader of the Alberta United Conservative Party with his chief opponent, former Wildrose Party leader Brian Jean, in Oct. 2017. According to David Cymbaluk, the problems the UCP face today are a result of the differences amongst members of the two founding parties never being addressed. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press )

This column is an opinion by Alberta farmer and blogger David Cymbaluk. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The turmoil we are seeing within Alberta's United Conservative Party (UCP) is a natural progression of the merger Jason Kenney manufactured between the Progressive Conservative (PC) and Wildrose Parties (WP) in 2017. 

The large ideological differences that were prevalent amongst the members of those two parties were never addressed and now, under the stress of the pandemic, those differences are re-emerging, threatening the stability of the UCP. Because of the outsized influence Albertans play within the Conservative Party of Canada, the same dynamic is affecting the federal party as well.

For the sake of clarity, I will define the two factions within the UCP as conservatives and republicans. Although there is some correlation to the old PC and WP wings, it is not exact and since neither of those parties exist anymore, it is not useful to refer to them by those names within the current situation, nor is it relevant to the federal conflict.

Conservatives vs. republicans

The conservatives within the UCP are ideologically aligned with traditional Canadian conservatism, seeing a role for government in society. I refer to the other ideological branch within the UCP as republicans, not because they are advocating an end to the monarchy, but because their ideology draws upon the rhetoric emanating from the U.S. Republican Party.

The conservatives legitimately can be classified as fitting on the right side of the overused left-right spectrum. But the ideology of the republicans is all over the place. It is a toxic brew of libertarianism and anarchism, fermented in a vat of fear (fear of change, fear of the other, fear of government, fear of being controlled). The ideology is toxic to the body politic because, if not actively promoting disobedience to the law, the republicans are at least tolerant of their supporters disobeying the law for no purpose greater than the personal convenience of their supporters. The two factions do not speak the same political language.

The conservatives believe in small, but efficient, government. The republicans accept as an article of faith that there is nothing a government does that cannot be done better by private industry. Small government contrasted to no government.

Conservatism is skeptical that the Charter of Rights and Freedoms isn't just a tool for criminals and freeloaders to avoid accountability. The republicans demand that their "God given" rights be respected.

Federal Conservative Leader Erin O'Toole is seeing a similar conflict play out among members of his party, some of whom are angry that O'Toole moved the party back towards traditional conservative values, says David Cymbaluk. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

The conservatives are pragmatic when it comes to gun control. They do not understand the civilian desire for handguns or assault rifles. As an extension of their distrust in government, republicans demand that they be allowed to own whatever gun they want. If you do not believe that the police or the government can protect you or your property, or if you feel the government is the biggest threat to yourself and your property, then it is rational for you to want the ability to protect yourself.

The conservatives view obtaining power as a means to further their economic interests, and to that end consider it necessary to enact public policies that are popular with the public. The republicans view obtaining power as a means of preventing the people they fear from implementing the policies they fear.

This is but a sample of the ideological divide between the two groups. This is not a dispute that can be decided in backroom deals by party activists, this is a dispute that can only be resolved by citizens at the ballot box. 

That is a process that should have started in the provincial election of 2019 between the PCs and the WP, but didn't because Jason Kenney manufactured them out of existence and prevented the electorate from choosing which path to take. 

But that did not mean that the fundamental ideology of the two groups disappeared, and the stress of the COVID crisis has brought those divisions to the forefront. That division is not just playing out within the UCP caucus, it is playing out across the province, within constituency associations, and amongst party supporters.

A national conflict

This conflict is also playing out within the Conservative Party of Canada. The republicans within the ranks are angry that Erin O'Toole moved the federal party back toward traditional conservative values. They very much want the Conservative Party of Canada to become a Republican Party of Canada, embracing the rhetoric and ideology of the U.S. Republican Party.

There exists a substantial base of people in Canada who find the intellectually-inconsistent rhetoric of American Republicanism to be very appealing. I think there is a larger group of Canadians who would be willing to tolerate it if it were socially acceptable to do so, or if the only alternative was to support a socialist party.

U.S.-style Republicanism has not yet achieved power in Canada because it has been moderated by its coalition with traditional Canadian conservatism. But there is no guarantee that will always be the case. Conservatives could one day be overwhelmed by a demagogue if they are not willing to confront their current coalition partners.

Jason Kenney finds himself in a difficult position now, because he did not choose sides four years ago in the ideological war that was taking place in Alberta. Instead, he brokered a ceasefire, believing that it was the same as peace. 

The ceasefire has broken and now he is taking fire from both sides, with Erin O'Toole suffering collateral damage.

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David Cymbaluk is an Alberta farmer and blogger with a degree in psychology and a broad interest in current affairs. He was a member of the Alberta PC party from the late 1990s to 2012 and was active in the Stony Plain constituency association, its board and executive committee.


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