Al­ber­tans are hun­gry for a fresh po­lit­i­cal star. Who will it be?

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - OPINION - GARY MA­SON gma­son@globe­and­mail.com

Brand loy­alty in pol­i­tics isn’t what it once was. Main­stream po­lit­i­cal par­ties in Canada have their knots of diehard sup­port­ers, but there is a great swath of vot­ers whose al­le­giance shifts like a weather vane.

This is the great hope of the Al­berta Party.

Its leader, Greg Clark, shook the prov­ince’s po­lit­i­cal fir­ma­ment re­cently, an­nounc­ing that he was re­sign­ing to make way for a lead­er­ship race – one that he may en­ter. Yes, we know. Odd. But it’s all part of a master plan to gen­er­ate fresh ex­cite­ment around a party that has a great name but lit­tle else go­ing for it.

With the as­cen­sion of Ja­son Ken­ney as the head of United Con­ser­va­tive Party, and sup­port for the gov­ern­ing New Democrats in freefall, there is a sense among some po­lit­i­cal eggheads in the prov­ince that the time is ripe for a cen­trist al­ter­na­tive.

The idea isn’t as far­fetched as it sounds.

The po­lit­i­cal scene in Al­berta is in tu­mult. Two years ago, vot­ers turfed one of the most sto­ried po­lit­i­cal fran­chises in Canada – the Progressive Con­ser­va­tives – in favour of the NDP. In a prov­ince of­ten viewed as the most right-wing in the coun­try, it was a de­vel­op­ment few ever imag­ined hap­pen­ing. Now the Tories don’t even ex­ist, hav­ing folded up op­er­a­tions to join with the Wil­drose Party un­der the ban­ner of the United Con­ser­va­tives.

There are many for­mer Al­berta PCs, how­ever, not happy about that de­vel­op­ment, and who are deeply sus­pi­cious of the ide­o­log­i­cal lean­ings of Mr. Ken­ney. These would be politi­cos who iden­ti­fied as “pro­gres­sives” and who held sway, for a brief while, un­der for­mer pre­mier Ali­son Red­ford.

“You have the Red­ford Tories, you have peo­ple who voted for Don Ive­son [as mayor of Ed­mon­ton], you have the peo­ple who voted for Na­heed Nen­shi as mayor of Cal­gary,” says Stephen Carter, a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist now vol­un­teer­ing his time to make the Al­berta Party a po­lit­i­cal con­tender.

“There are a lot of mod­er­ates in Al­berta who are look­ing for a place to land, who are look­ing for some­thing other than Ja­son Ken­ney and the UCP on the far right and the Not­ley New Democrats on the far left.”

Mr. Carter knows some­thing about beat­ing the odds. He was the strate­gic force be­hind the sur­pris­ing rise to power of both Mr. Nen­shi and Ms. Red­ford. Now he’s look­ing for his next project. In at­tempt­ing to make the Al­berta Party a po­lit­i­cal force he has his work cut out for him.

It has lit­tle money in the bank and a scrawny sup­porter base. It does have two MLAs in the leg­is­la­ture, in­clud­ing Mr. Clark, and could soon have an­other. The party is hold­ing an AGM this week­end in Red Deer that is sold out. A lead­er­ship race could gen­er­ate pub­lic in­ter­est, needed cash and an ex­panded mem­ber­ship. What it needs most, is a charis­matic voice to com­mu­ni­cate some grander vi­sion.

Some be­lieve that per­son is Ryan Jes­persen, a highly like­able and smart 40-year-old talk-ra­dio host from Ed­mon­ton.

The fact that he has zero pre­vi­ous po­lit­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence is seen as an as­set by some, es­pe­cially in a gen­eral elec­tion against ca­reer politi­cians such as Mr. Ken­ney and Ms. Not­ley. On other hand, they might just eat him alive. At this point, the Al­berta Party may not have any­thing to lose.

Not many are giv­ing the party a chance of be­com­ing a cred­i­ble force by 2019. Ad­mit­tedly, that is a nar­row win­dow. Also, soon the other two main par­ties will be­gin tack­ing to­ward the mid­dle in an ef­fort to woo vot­ers es­sen­tial to elec­toral suc­cess.

Mr. Ken­ney will try and as­suage mem­bers of the pub­lic wor­ried about his views around so­cial is­sues, such as ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity. Ms. Not­ley, mean­time, will bring in a bud­get next year in­tended to con­vince a skep­ti­cal elec­torate that the NDP isn’t go­ing to bank­rupt the prov­ince. Ms. Not­ley is a com­pelling politi­cian, es­pe­cially in cam­paign mode. Mr. Ken­ney is a po­lit­i­cal ma­chine and pos­ses­sor of un­par­al­leled or­ga­ni­za­tional chops.

They are an in­tim­i­dat­ing pair to take on, to be sure.

How­ever, the po­lit­i­cal dy­namic in Al­berta has never been more in flux. The right po­lit­i­cal leader, with the right story to tell, could make a pow­er­ful con­nec­tion with a pub­lic starv­ing for au­then­tic­ity and some­thing fresh and ex­cit­ing.

Whether that’s the Al­berta Party un­der a new leader, who knows? But there’s no rea­son why it couldn’t be.

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