Alberta’s namesake party is facing an existential crisis.
Just two years after its formation, the nascent Alberta Party is losing its leader after an electoral shutout in April. And now party operatives are pondering whether, at its annual general membership meeting on Sept. 22, it should soldier on, disband or turn itself into a think tank focused on progressive ideas.
With a stillborn performance like this, it must feel like the Social Credit of the centre-left: irrelevant, largely ignored and not an organization anyone would construe as a future contender.
The contrast couldn’t be more vivid between the Alberta Party and another recent rookie movement — the Wildrose Alliance, a fiscally conservative/socially libertarian party which, under the leadership of Danielle Smith, came within a hair’s breadth of winning that same provincial election.
It wasn’t that the Alberta Party lacked leadership. Former Hinton mayor Glenn Taylor had an amiable image and a grassroots political presence.
It also had “brand” on its side. Naming your party after the province appears to have populist potential — after all, it worked in Saskatchewan, where the right-wing Saskatchewan Party overcame the baggage associated with the previous corruption-tainted Progressive Conservative Party, and rode to electoral success.
Actually, the Alberta Party has the literal name but the Wildrose name might actually come closer to capturing the essence of the province.
But it was something else that failed to impress voters. Perhaps it was the contrived sense of entitlement — that this party somehow had a vision of a better way, without clearly enunciating what the better way would look like. Better governance? Greater accountability? I think we’ve all heard these lines before. Note to policy wonks: Show us the money.
I think it may have had something to do with haste. It’s no secret that some of the forces behind the Alberta Party also had their hands in the election of the progressive and popular Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. There was a sense that the surprising come-from-nowhere success in that campaign could be simply escalated to the provincial level.
Instead, party politics at the provincial and federal levels are both more complex and more deeply entrenched. Histories are longer, policies more completely evolved and traditions more deeply bound. The Wildrose succeeded as well as it did (and, to be clear, that party’s greatest hour may yet come) because it had simple and clear policy positions and even claimed to be the rightful heirs to Alberta’s conservative tradition.
Compare that advanced state to the other new kids on the block. What traditions are the Alberta Party rooted in?
A few years ago, I was part of a group in Alberta that considered founding a new political party based on fiscal conservatism and environmental stewardship. We invited Preston Manning, the closest thing in Canada to a political wise man, to one of our meetings, seeking insights from his early days of the Reform movement. The advice he delivered then could easily apply to the Alberta Party establishment today.
Preston’s advice was to take time and get your ideas in place as a social movement before even considering an entrance into the political arena. Your ideas are what will be how the public measure your group’s value as a movement; launching such a movement before those ideas are fully formed will ultimately doom the cause to failure. In simpler terms, there’s no point in having sizzle if there’s no steak.
Our little group never got beyond the idea stage, but the concept of environmentally-friendly conservatism has found its way into the public discourse. That is in part a credit to Manning, who has emerged as a leader in the fiscally conservative/environmentally responsible ethic.
Manning’s advice on getting the values right first is what the Alberta Party should have received, but apparently did not.
Perhaps the best thing for the Alberta Party to do at this moment is to take a step back, and get the horse back in front of the cart. No matter how catchy the name, no one will vote for a party that doesn’t have its elevator pitch polished to a high shine. If you can’t say in a few words what you stand for, you’ll never connect with the people whose support you need.
There’s no shortcut to spending a few years in church basements and community halls getting up close and personal with the province whose name you aspire to wear.
Doug Firby is editor in chief and national affairs columnist for Troy Media.
— Troy Media