Big tents work best in Canada
The birth of the United Conservative Party in Alberta carries important lessons for everyone in Canada, but most of all the people who made it possible.
It was the union of the province’s often bickering Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties that gave life to this new political force. The parties’ merger was absolutely necessary after the bitter split in Alberta conservative ranks enabled Rachel Notley’s New Democrats to win the last provincial election and end a 44-year-old Tory dynasty.
Dissatisfied with a PC party it considered too prone to big government and big government spending, staunch social and fiscal conservatives had walked away years before and started the Wildrose party.
Yet if Progressive Conservatives and Wildrose supporters are still not enamoured with each another, they dislike the NDP far more and have set aside their differences, temporarily at least. The question now is: Will the marriage hold? Can moderate PC Tories cohabit with their more right-wing Wildrose partners in one big happy family?
If they’re smart, they’ll learn how. Whether you love or hate it, Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system rewards parties that pitch a big tent with a welcome sign at the entrance. While critics consider this electoral system inherently unfair, it encourages parties to be inclusive, to accommodate a broad range of political views while avoiding narrow, rigid ideologies.
That’s desirable. That’s also the way successful political parties eke out the approximately 40 per cent of the popular vote it takes to form majority governments. It’s the strategy that helped the federal Liberals govern Canada for most of its history.
More than 30 years ago, the now-defunct federal Progressive Conservatives followed the same path under the guidance of Brian Mulroney, who won two majorities by staking out ground with room for both Quebec nationalists and Western populists.
His coalition held until disgruntled Quebec Tories formed the pro-sovereignty Bloc Québécois and the Western faction created the Reform Party. That splintering of the right led to 13 years of Liberal government and the death of the federal Progressive Conservatives.
It was only after Stephen Harper reunited the right under the Conservative Party of Canada banner that conservatives were able to govern in Ottawa once again.
It remains an open question whether Alberta’s United Conservative Party will enjoy similar success.
Will the new party honour the “progressive” part of its heritage or move further to the right? Will it not only stress fiscal conservatism, smaller government and economic growth but also social conservatism? And can it avoid future splits? Already, a PC member of the Legislative Assembly, Richard Stark, has refused to join the new party’s caucus after vowing to “hold to values and principles consistent with Progressive Conservatism.”
On the weekend, with 95 per cent of those who voted favouring the creation of the new party, Alberta conservatives realized the need to control loose cannons, dull sharp ideological edges and pitch that big tent.
It remains to be seen if the lesson is imprinted in the United Conservatives’ DNA.