Nation, as you know, I've been working on an overview of the province's political parties, to give us all something to think about as we head on the slow march towards a spring election.
No sooner do I finish writing my look at the Wildrose Party than I find, to my surprise, that a merger between this new party and the Alberta Alliance is not just rumoured, but essentially is all but done.
By now, many of you are familiar with the details: The new party, provisionally named "Wildrose Alliance", would essentially adopt the party constitution of Wildrose, and its first leader would be Paul Hinman, the lone sitting MLA for what has been to this point the Alberta Alliance.
The adoption of the Wildrose constitution is a step in the right direction - as time goes on, and people learn from the examples of others about what works and what doesn't in a constitution, it's only right that it change (unless, of course, it's the constitution handed down by God Herself to Saint Trudeau, which is not a living document but must remain unchanged in perpetuity, no matter how flawed and despite the fact that 23.4% of the population hasn't ratified it - right, Liberals?), and the Wildrose constitution is all of what, 7 months old? Hinman is also an obvious choice to lead the Party through its birth pains, and into the pending election. As a sitting MLA, and someone who has led a provincial party before, he lends credibility to the effort. A particularly fun discussion, though, results from asking the question "who will be the NEXT leader of the Wildrose Alliance?".
We'll ask that question some other time.
Nation, the question that must be asked at this point, is "so what does this mean?".
The Alberta Alliance, which stood to win MAYBE 5 or 6 seats in the next election, if everything went its way, has absorbed a party that has never run a candidate, anywhere. Wildrose has never had a single vote cast for it, in any election, ever. And yet, despite this, those inside the new party are convinced that they are now the government-in-waiting.
This isn't to say that it CAN'T happen... it's just extremely unlikely.
Unless the stories of mass migrations of disgruntled Tories flocking to Wildrose are true, we're talking about a party with an extremely small, overwhelmingly rural membership base, and little ability to fundraise. The "Wildrose Effect" is hard to predict, but in the last provincial election, the Alliance captured 8.7% of the popular vote. The NDP captured 4 seats with just 10.2% of the popular vote. The Alliance's strength, to date, has been in rural communities. The election of Ed Stelmach as leader of the PC's may hurt the new party's rural fortunes, as a vote for the Stelmach Tories this spring will be a vote to keep a farmer from Andrew, Alberta as the province's premier.
To be honest, it's very easy to be dismissive of this new party.
Despite this, I'd encourage the members and supporters of the PC Party to avoid doing so at all costs - the federal PC's, sitting pretty after consecutive Mulroney majorities, harboured the same attitude towards Preston Manning and his rag-tag bunch of "red-necked, hillbilly populists". Their party fell off the electoral radar screen in 1993, and a decade later it ceased to exist altogether, when it was absorbed by - you guessed it - that same bunch of "red-necked, hillbilly populists", now having their mail delivered to 24 Sussex Drive.
The concern for the Tories here needs to be that the new party could be greater than the sum of its parts. With a well-run campaign, a few seats in the legislature and a successful AGM and policy convention, the Wildrose Alliance can establish itself on some political ground that has proven very stable and successful in Alberta, and currently remains vacant - the traditional PC real estate of "fiscal responsibility and social hands-off" (Kevin Taft, to his credit, tried to squat on or near this spot, or just to the left of it, but nobody noticed).
If the party's right wing can resist the urge to legislate morals (Wildrose side-stepped this minefield at their policy convention, to their credit), and they can get in touch with the average Albertan's concern over the province's fiscal future (it's only a matter of time before the oil runs out, or alternative energy takes over), they can make some gains here. Just as important is the appearance of momentum - people love a winner, and will flock to join a party they feel will be in power. If polls show the Wildrose Alliance making gains, traditional Tory voters will take a look at the party. If the party co-opts the 1993 PC Alberta platform, those voters will like what they see (most of them already voted for that platform once, when it was Ralph's), and may park their votes there - to the dismay of the Stelmach Tories.
There are, however, 2 potentially deadly Achilles' Heels that this party will be burdened with, from the day of its birth onward.
The first is the fringe, far-right social conservative element. Albertans are socially conservative - on a small, limited scale. Most of us, however, are disinclined to revisit divisive social issues on a provincial scale purely for the sake of a politician's standing in his or her church (or mosque, or temple, or synagogue). The American-style (god, I hate that term) SoCon evangelical "vote for me because I'm the most Christian candidate" approach may work in a few towns across the province, but will NOT work on a provincial scale. Edmontonians and Calgarians will not support a party that tries to meddle in people's private lives. Should the party's social conservative elements make noise about re-opening the debate on same-sex marriage, abortion, or any number of other divisive social and moral issues, the cities will simply avoid this party like the plague. There is far too much important policy relating directly to Alberta's future to get bogged down in moral and religious debates:
"People shouldn't be able to do this, it's against my faith!"
"Yeah, but wasn't eating meat on a Friday against your faith, and punishable by hell less than 100 years ago, too? Where's THAT law?"
The second major dilemma this party faces is fundraising. There's no such thing as a free lunch - it's a cliche because it's TRUE. Parties without proven track records and, just as importantly, without an actual chance (or perceived chance, at the very least) of winning power have an extremely difficult time raising money with which to fund campaigns. People and corporations don't want to donate money so they can buy influence with the opposition - they want to purchase influence with the party in government. The only 2 groups that have the money and inclination to support this party are going to be Big God and Big Oil.
Big God - organized Christian religion (especially evangelicals) - is going to love this party. They're going to donate to it, they're going to join it, they're going to volunteer for it, and they're going to vote for it. The problem is, they're going to attach some pretty serious strings to that support:
"We'll support you, but once you're in power, you're going to have to help us turn the clock back to 'Traditional Values' and re-make this province back into the way it SHOULD be - no gays, baby-killers, or bikinis allowed".As I mentioned above, even a whiff of this in the party platform (or, the PC's playing the dreaded "hidden agenda" card) will scare disenchanted PC voters away from taking a chance on this party (they'll likely stay home rather than vote for the Grits or Dippers - here's an idea: Vote GREEN if you're mad at Ed).
Big Oil, on the other hand, has no choice. They can't support the Liberals or the NDP, the Greens are their mortal enemy, they won't support the Tories after the re-jigging of the Royalty Regime, so who does that leave? The problem, again, being that the Wildrose Alliance needs Big Oil's money a lot more than Big Oil needs the Wildrose Alliance, and therefore influence on the party's policies and platforms will be the trade-off for all those nice, big cheques.
The danger here is to the campaign itself - To run a campaign as a brand new party and get bogged down on details of your proposed overhaul to the new royalty framework is a political car-wreck. When you're trying to get your new brand out to the people, and communicate your entire platform and your aspirations for the province, to spend half of your time explaining the math involved in your Royalty plan because the time is being paid for by Exxon or Shell is a communications nightmare. Plus, the support of Big Oil will make it problematic for this party to run a campaign of fiscal accountability based on the fact that "the oil's going to run out someday". Hard to argue the need to diversify the economy and rely less on Oil when Oil is paying for your t.v. commercials.
The way I see it, unless there is a popular uprising based on Hinman's personal likeability (possible, but unlikely) and hundreds of thousands of Albertans start mailing in $50 cheques to the Wildrose Alliance, this party is going to have to decide which is the lesser of the 2 evils - it WILL have to sell its soul to actually run a major campaign in 10 weeks. Will it be to Big God, and make its first impression to the province as a "religious fringe party", or will it be to Big Oil, and be seen as a "corporate, anti-environment party"?
My money's on Big Oil - you'll tick off the environmentalists, but a strong oilpatch means jobs across the province, which means disposable income - and people who have disposable income are happy and vote out of motivated self-interest - which, the Wildrose Alliance hopes will mean THEM and not the Tories, evil plunderers of the oilpatch that they are.
The Alliance is meeting on January 19th to ratify the merger. Polling day could be less than 2 months after that, so you know that they're working on election details NOW, and hoping like hell that the Alliance membership doesn't reject the merger.
In 2004, the Alliance was a fringe, and Wildrose wasn't yet a glimmer in Link Byfield's eye. In 2008, the Wildrose Alliance will either surpass its predecessor, or be still-born and crushed under the Tory electoral machine. It all depends on the Wildrose Alliance platform, and how they choose to communicate it - because if this party can't be ready to go to the polls in 2 months, and be a palatable choice to disgruntled PC supporters, it runs the risk of returning a single MLA for 4 or 5 more years, and withering on the vine.
For this merger to be a success, they must return no less than 5 MLA's to the legislature, to push the party's platform and make sure it stays on the radar until the next election. They need a podium at the debates, they need to run a good campaign, both leading up to this election and more importantly AFTERWARDS, and they need to make sure they present a MODERATE conservative alternative if they ever hope to win support in the cities.
Interesting times in Alberta politics... it truly IS "the most wonderful time of the year..."