Two months from now, Jason Kenney will win control of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives, a party that nobody can really claim they control at present—except perhaps this insurgent leadership candidate and would-be party dissolver.
One of his supporters on Monday night emailed me a short video file (a gif, for you hip kids out there) of a burning dumpster, by way of describing the evening’s display of a once-dominant Alberta party coming apart in public, seam by fragile seam. Which, of course, makes things easier for a former federal minister who wants to merge this weakened party with the opposition Wildrose to create one larger, NDP-busting force.
The PC Youth Association on late Monday tweeted a letter announcing that Alan Hallman was being named the group’s honorary chair. A day before, the party’s executive, fed up with some of the rule-bending and online bullying from this long-time political party operative, took the extreme step of suspending him from the party for a year. This was a Millennial middle finger at the party’s brass, from young Tories loyal to Kenney.
Except then a handful of some PC youth directors—who oppose a merger or prefer one of three anti-merger leadership candidates—replied that the letter from the youth president and her pro-Kenney allies was crafted without their knowledge, and may flout party rules. Ah, there is only one thing more ragged than party politics: youth party politics.
Legitimate or not, the defiant move to suspend Hallman was brazen. But by Monday night, respect and credibility for the crew ostensibly running Alberta’s once-dominant party had already been well-shredded. Interim party leader Ric McIver, who publicly does not support his longtime political buddy Kenney but (wink, shrug, well, c’mon) skipped out on the weekend’s PC leadership debate, and instead tweeted a picture of himself watching from home with the newly sanctioned Hallman, his other pal. Ever hear the one about the political leader social-media trolling his party executive? No, me neither.
Kenney, while distancing himself from his field manager, also publicly gave kudos to the suspended Hallman for becoming an honorary young person, to close the circle of mischief. And meanwhile, he continues to dominate in the way he actually needs to: padding his massive lead and securing delegates to March’s leadership convention. Barring some major political earthquake, campaign collapse or more Tory executive interventions, Kenney will win easily on the first ballot against his three rivals. Even some of Kenney’s opponents will acknowledge this, aware of how vastly superior his organization is to the small factions fighting to keep the PCs a standalone party, separate from the farther-to-the-right Wildrose.
At the last debate, leadership candidate Stephen Khan led the late-game swings against Kenney, using a line of attack Rachel Notley has also wielded against Kenney. “Only a centrist, moderate government will have success in 2019,” he said. “Albertans are not going to vote for a party of intolerance, for a party of extreme social conservatism.”
Like the party executive’s suspension of Kenney’s field organizer, it’s a punchy attempt to get the frontrunner on the defence—but it feels almost after-the-fact, a little last-ditch. Another campaigner ceded they’re outnumbered, out-hustled, and soon out of moves to make.
“When nine people are setting fire to your house and only one’s left to fight it, it’s going to burn down,” said Donal O’Beirne, a volunteer for the campaign of Richard Starke, one of eight Tory MLAs remaining in the legislature after 2015’s shock NDP triumph.
Meanwhile, the NDP-friendly detractors of Kenney sometimes compare him to Donald Trump—though this is unfair, because Kenney doesn’t engage in demagoguery, nor is he policy-incompetent. But there is something of the Donald in the way Kenney is crushing his way to rule of a party whose establishment didn’t want him.
There’s a surprisingly small faction left to preserve the PC brand that Peter Lougheed built a half-century ago. By the time of the election loss, many driven activists had shifted rightward to the Wildrose, and power-digging opportunists drifted away. The remnants sought to rebuild a principled centrist party that would challenge the NDP and Wildrose in the 2019 election. Then along came Kenney, with his plan to repeat what Stephen Harper and Peter Mackay did in the 2003 federal unite-the-right efforts.
When he launched last July, those remnant Tories reckoned that nobody they knew would warm to Kenney and a Wildrose merger—but then Kenney brought in a bunch of new PC members they didn’t know, or they had lost touch with over the years, or some Ralph Klein-era schemers they were happy to forget. Many in that diminished establishment thought its leadership process would make it tougher for an outsider like Kenney to win—but then his rivals stayed on the sidelines for a few months and gave him ample room to amass his regional organization and a support base of right-leaning Albertans eager to increase the odds Rachel Notley only serves one term.
These days, the NDP are behind in the polls, and they’ve provoked widespread outrage with the carbon tax now in place. But they still can boast of the best fundraising haul of all the parties in 2016’s final quarter: $798,165, to the Wildrose’s $511,667 and Tories’ $218,792. Turns out Kenney is chowing on the lunch of both right-wing parties, claiming $663,000 in the same quarter. He drew 800 people to a town hall last week in Calgary and about 500 in Edmonton, while his opponents hold coffee klatsches. He’s steamrolling through the delegate process, and no doubt the Wildrose brass is wondering warily how or when he’ll start his sinking his chompers into a second party, ahead of a likely leader-vs-leader showdown between Kenney and Brian Jean. In that looming face-off, a poll released last month showed that Albertans would prefer Jean, giving the aw-shucks Fort McMurrayite a popularity edge over the more polarizing Kenney. But it’s not only a narrow edge—Jean would win 61 per cent of the vote leading a Tory-Wildrose party, Kenney 53 per cent—but also, in either case, the merged parties would crush an NDP polling below 25 per cent.
The flailing power struggle between the Tory executive and Kenney risks turning off some Wildrose fans who will see it as the same old icky PC shenanigans. But it hasn’t seemed to hurt him yet in wooing Tories who were said to also hate such old-school antics and characters. And that’s what the Hallman drama highlights most: When his field organizer with a nasty reputation was punished, Kenney quietly dumped him from the campaign, kept plowing ahead, and let his other high-ranking Tory friends show the party who’s really boss. Kenney won’t mind much that the existing PC establishment is burning, or that his allies are pouring gasoline on the house. After he wins leadership, he can just brush aside the ashes and start work a new one.