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The meaning of Alberta conservatism

The recent capitulation of Danielle Smith and eight of her Wildrose party colleagues to the governing Progressive Conservatives can only be understood by decoding the meaning of conservatism in Alberta and the political purposes that construction serves.

The comments of Preston Manning and Premier Jim Prentice are instructive here. Manning played a major role in bringing about the mass defection, an act for which he has since provided written comments both justifying and then apologizing. The latter repentance need not concern us, but central among his stated justifications is the need for “Albertans, including conservatives of every stripe, to ‘pull together,'” to deal with the province’s current economic downturn resulting from a decline in the price of oil.

Also instructive are Premier Jim Prentice’s comments, in defending Smith et al. against charges that their defection was undemocratic. “No one should equate democracy to conservatives fighting each other for the entertainment of the NDP.” In short, conservatism is a single bloc against which no man or woman should stand opposed.

But what is this conservatism that Manning and Prentice invoke? Conservatism comes in various forms – Tory and republican; economic, political, and social. Indeed, Danielle Smith referred to social conservatives in her former caucus as the reason she abandoned Wildrose. Does the call for conservative unity include these elements? One wonders.

The fact is, few people are ideologically motivated. Most people, and this includes Albertans, hold a mix of beliefs and values that range from socialist to liberal to conservative, and points extending. People cast a vote for a host of reasons, the least of which is strictly ideological.

If the definition of conservatives is unclear and even contradictory, what then is the purpose of calling for them to unite?

The answer is simple: it is a call for voters to rally, not around some chimerical orthodoxy, but around the Progressive Conservative party itself; a party, in turn, controlled by a very small corporate elite. The call for conservative unity in fact serves to neuter any voices that might challenge the party’s penthouse apparatchiks, keeping them silent and contained within the PC party’s big tent.

The current “unity debate” in Alberta has its roots in the 2007 election of Ed Stelmach as party leader and premier. Stelmach’s victory was a surprise, as he defeated the oil industry’s hand-picked candidate, Jim Dinning. Even more of a surprise, Stelmach soon after struck a review panel to examine Alberta’s oil royalty structure. The panel’s subsequent report recommended a moderate rate increase that would be phased in over time.

Alberta’s petroleum industry was livid and reacted as though someone had poured sugar into one of their CEO’s gas tanks. Clearly, Stelmach needed a reminder about who actually runs the province, but how to send it?

The problem was made even more complicated when Stelmach handily won the spring 2008 election, taking 72 of 83 seats, and 53 per cent of the vote. But the fates were against him. The effects of the Great Recession, begun months before, slowly rolled into Alberta. The price of oil declined. The oil industry and its acolytes in the media promptly blamed Stelmach for daring to tinker with the royalty regime.

To ensure Stelmach was disciplined, however, the oil industry threw its weight behind a political party it found stranded on the right side of a rural road, the Wildrose Alliance party. Founded just prior to the election from the remains of two earlier fringe right-wing parties, Wildrose seemed at first going nowhere. But it gained traction in the fall of 2009 after electing Danielle Smith, a Fraser Institute alumni, as leader. Smith quickly solidified the corporate sector’s support.

The charismatically challenged Stelmach was no match for the media savvy and telegenic Smith. Amidst declining poll numbers, Stelmach stepped down as PC leader in the fall of 2011. Wildrose’s primary political purpose was fulfilled. But then the unexpected happened: the party, formed as a pressure group, instead continued to grow in electoral strength. Facing Alison Redford, the new PC leader going into the 2012 election, Wildrose for a time even seemed poised for victory.

Wildrose did not, of course, win; the loss to political cartoonists is incalculable. But it was not Wildrose’s strength that worried Alberta’s corporate elite. More worrisome was the growing independence of progressive voices both within and outside the PC party. The oil industry’s death grip over the province’s economy depends upon keeping everyone trapped inside the PC party tent where contrary views can be assuaged and, more often, ignored.

In the end, Redford proved hapless and self-destructive. No one lamented her resignation as premier in the spring of 2014. Thus, the way was paved for Jim Prentice. In Prentice, Alberta’s petroleum-based corporate elite – not to mention Danielle Smith – at last has its man. As for Wildrose, its purpose completed, it could be kicked to the side of the road from whence it came. The danger of pluralism breaking out in Alberta was thus thwarted. “Conservatism” in Alberta seems once again safe.

Trevor Harrison is director of the Parkland Institute and a political sociologist at the University of Lethbridge.

Trevor Harrison

Trevor W. Harrison is a professor of sociology at the University of Lethbridge and director of Parkland Institute, an Alberta-wide research organization, of which he was a founding member and first research director. Dr. Harrison is best known for his studies in political sociology, political economy and public policy. He is the author, co-author or co-editor of nine books, numerous journal articles, chapters, and reports, and a frequent contributor to public media, including radio and television.

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