The lessons I learned the hard way can help unite Alberta's right
There is considerable discussion in Alberta these days about the need to create a united conservative alternative to the NDP prior to the next provincial election. While agreeing with this objective, my concern is that such an undertaking needs to be very carefully launched, co-ordinated, and managed if it is to be successful.
My own experience in this regard is primarily drawn from my involvement in reorganizing Canadian conservatism at the federal level. This was accomplished through the creation of the Reform Party, the United Alternative initiative, and the Canadian Alliance, all leading to the formation of the reconstructed Conservative Party of Canada, which achieved majority government status in 2011.
The following are principles learned from this experience and are relevant to the creation of a united conservative alternative for Alberta:
Build on principles: The uniting of conservatives in Alberta must be based on shared principles and a shared commitment to better serve the province, not simply to beat the NDP.
Balance: If some sort of united alternative steering committee is formed to explore and advance this option, it must be properly balanced right from the outset. That is, have balanced representation from northern and southern Alberta, urban and rural Alberta, and of course, from both the Wildrose and the Alberta PC camps. Our federal experience suggests that bringing about a principled political realignment of two parties is a bit like getting into a canoe; mishaps due to imbalances are most likely to occur at the launch and when first pushing away from the shore.
Incremental steps: The process of uniting members and supporters of political parties that have been at war with each other for years must be approached in a series of small incremental steps that slowly build trust. In the legislature, this might include some co-operation in question period or united opposition to some egregious bill, such as the NDP’s farm bill. At the constituency level, this might include preliminary discussions among constituency executives on how to stop the vote splitting in ridings where this clearly led to the loss of the seat to the NDP. Attempts at top-down quick fixes, such as trying to force the parties together by withholding or offering funds, are a sure recipe for failure and can set back the uniting process for years.
Grassroots involvement and consent: A uniting of conservative-minded forces in Alberta cannot be achieved exclusively at the executive and leadership level. Both Wildrose and the Alberta PCs have thousands of grassroots members and hundreds of thousands of voters who support them. Any united alternative process must therefore be conducted so as to involve and carry the judgment of the grassroots and the public at every stage. This can be accomplished by early consultation of members, securing member authorization to explore ways and means of preventing vote splitting, debate of authorizing resolutions at party conferences, and submitting the final decision as to whether to proceed further to party-wide votes.
Respect current leaders: Both the Wildrose and PC parties have elected leaders with legal and moral obligations to their members and voters. Their already-difficult jobs cannot be compromised, nor can they be bypassed by any process to explore or pursue a united alternative option. This means that, at minimum, they must be consulted and kept advised of any united alternative initiative, and guaranteed that if the effort results in a new united entity, they will have a full and fair opportunity to contest its leadership.
In pursuing a united conservative alternative at the federal level, we made our share of mistakes, but in the end, the conservative portion of the political spectrum was successfully realigned and a competent majority government was achieved. There is no reason the same thing cannot be done more quickly and efficiently at the provincial level in Alberta, provided the mistakes we made are not repeated and the principles we learned the hard way are intelligently applied.
Preston Manning is the founder of the Manning Centre.
This column ran in the February 5 edition of the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal