Wildrose and PC refusal to join forces could set up another NDP win
By James Wood
Canada’s two conservative parties are determined to go their own way, but a key figure in uniting the right on the federal level says they are ignoring the lessons of the past.
Wildrose Leader Brian Jean said this week that unification with the Progressive Conservatives is dead and he pledged, instead, to make Wildrose a more broad-based party — potentially under a new name.
The Tories had already dismissed the notion of unifying with Wildrose, voting at their recent annual general meeting to rebuild and modernize the party under the Progressive Conservative brand.
Ray Speaker, the former Canada MLA and MP who chaired the merger process between the federal PCs and the Canadian Alliance that resulted in the Conservative party in 2004, said he was disappointed with the recent turn of events.
“What they’re doing is opening the door for the NDP to become the government again in three years,” he said in an interview Friday.
Speaker said Jean and interim Tory Leader Ric McIver both think they can win without the other and are underestimating the potential support for Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP government in the 2019 election. He noted the federal split of conservatives was only healed through the actions of party leaders Stephen Harper and Peter MacKay.
Jean last fall called for grassroots conversations between Wildrose and PC members to push consolidation, though he staunchly ruled out any talks between the parties themselves.
Top Tories, meanwhile, have been cool to any unification talk from the start, despite the interest of many party members.
Speaker said he understands that the mass floor-crossing of Wildrose MLAs to the PC government caucus just before the 2015 election still casts a dark shadow over any party-to-party discussions, but leaders have to put ego and vested interests aside.
“If those two individuals are not committed to it, it’s not going to happen,” said Speaker, who served as a Social Credit and Progressive Conservative MLA, provincial Tory cabinet minister and Reform MP.
He said the current situation is somewhat akin to the late 1990s federally, when Reform Leader Preston Manning, rebuffed in his unite-the-right efforts, pushed for the creation of a new party under a new name, the Canadian Alliance.
Jean is not calling for the formation of a new party, but he wants Wildrose to become a “bigger and broader coalition” that welcomes all conservatives.
He’s also suggested Wildrose could rebrand under a new name and the party has already protected the designations Canada Conservative Party Association and Conservative Party of Canada Association as possible new monikers.
For veteran Wildrose MLAs who stuck with the party at the time of the floor-crossing and were later re-elected, changing the party name isn’t a favoured option.
Drew Barnes, the Cypress-Medicine Hat MLA who finished second to Jean in last year’s Wildrose leadership race, said he would make the case to retain the Wildrose brand, though he is willing to accept a decision of party members.
“We have a lot of strength in the Wildrose name,” he said Friday. “Thousands of our volunteers have worked hard for six or seven years now. We’ve stuck strong on our beliefs.”
Barnes, who is opposed to the idea of unifying with the PCs, said he doesn’t think Wildrose needs to make significant changes to attract new members but needs to communicate better that it is a welcoming place for conservatives.
Livingstone-Macleod MLA Pat Stier, who, like Barnes, was first elected in 2012, said he sees an opportunity to broaden the party’s appeal in a review of policy.
“People change, policies change, attitudes do change as time comes along. We always want to be as up-to-date as we can,” said Stier, who added he has “mixed feelings” about the idea of a name change.
Policy changes and a potential rebranding for Wildrose will be up for discussion at the party’s annual general meeting this October.
The PC board of directors, meanwhile, are expected to set a timetable for the selection of a new leader at a June 4 meeting, according to PC executive director Troy Wason.
Wason expressed confidence Wildrose will not be allowed to rename itself as a “Conservative” party given that provincial law gives the chief electoral officer the ability to reject a party name if it too closely resembles another and could cause confusion.
He said he knows Jean has “put a target” on the PCs, but thinks Wildrose may face its own internal divisions over rebranding and policy changes.
“They’re trying to find their place, like we are, and I mean that’s cool,” he said.”But once summer is over, I think (Jean) is going to have his own issues. That’s politics in Canada.”
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