This column is an opinion by Michael Solberg, a partner and co-owner of New West Public Affairs, a government and public relations firm based in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s Opinion section, please see the FAQ.
The post-mortems of Premier Jason Kenney’s tenure as leader of the United Conservative Party have been written.
So have the analyses of what went wrong that led to Kenney receiving 51.4 per cent of the vote at the party’s leadership review, which party members hope will effectively end 18 months of unrest within the party and among its caucus.
Now conservatives in Alberta need to turn to the future and focus on what the UCP has to do to hold the coalition together, turn the page and win the next election.
Kenney will play a big role in what happens next.
The interim period between his resignation and the selection of a permanent leader must be spent healing the division within the party, its membership, and its caucus.
This includes Kenney doing one very important thing: welcoming MLAs Todd Loewen and Drew Barnes back into caucus.
They were expelled from the governing caucus last May via a secret ballot by their caucus colleagues over allegations they divided the party and undermined government leadership.
However, in the spirit of turning the page and party unity, they need to be presented with a path to redemption.
No doubt it will be an uncomfortable conversation, but Kenney should offer them the opportunity to rejoin the UCP after consultation with their former caucus colleagues.
Assuming caucus wants them back, this move would do much to unite the party in all corners of the province and it addresses some of the most vocal points of malcontent in the caucus.
Kenney must also continue the important work of election readiness.
The leadership review mostly brought this process to a halt.
While his membership may have been divided over his continued leadership of the party, few would deny Kenney’s campaign prowess and while he remains leader, they should take full advantage of his fundraising and organizing ability in the face of a united and well-funded NDP opposition.
The party doesn’t have much choice — the general election is now just a year away. There is no time to waste.
The eventual leadership race, which has already begun for former Wildrose leaders Danielle Smith and Brian Jean, is both a risk and an opportunity for the party.
On one hand, electing a new party leader is a gift as candidates travel the province presenting their conservative vision for the party, selling memberships, raising money, recruiting volunteers and collectively building a profile for the governing party.
On the other hand, if they are anything like their colleagues in the federal Conservative Party leadership race, they will most likely be slinging dirt and firing Scud missiles at one another, which risks further exacerbating divisions within the party.
We know that Doug Schweitzer, the former UCP leadership candidate and prominent Alberta cabinet minister, will not be entering the race. He’s also decided not to run in the next election.
Schweitzer has long been a pillar for moderate conservatives, a voting bloc that prospective leaders will need to court, not just in the upcoming leadership race, but in the looming general election, should they be successful.
We know there are voices who can speak to the party’s dedicated right-wing, but who can also speak to moderates — many of whom find themselves in the electoral battleground of Calgary?
As a UCP member, let me be among the first to say that I will be demanding a high bar for discourse, civility and for a focus on the issues, the most important being how a new leader would ensure the coalition stays together and maintains its appeal as a big tent party.
Kenney couldn’t do it and this remains a tall task for anyone — but the UCP cannot be a wounded party on the eve of the next election if it has any expectation of re-election.
With that said, the next leader of the UCP is inheriting a wealth of political opportunity.
Some public opinion polling suggests a new leader would fare better than Kenney in the next election; a potential cautionary tale of “be careful what you wish for” if you’re an NDP supporter.
The trendline for economic growth is also on the side of the UCP.
The Conference Board of Canada has predicted that Alberta will lead the country in economic growth this year and next, with Alberta Central saying at the end of last summer that the economy could even surpass its 2014 peak.
The UCP tabled and passed Budget 2022 in February, which was the first balanced budget in Alberta in eight years.
High prices for energy products and other key commodities could mean a significant surplus in Budget 2023.
This means more money for schools, hospitals, bridges, roads, auditoriums, and municipalities — all good things for a government that is seeking re-election.
The UCP Board of Directors will strike a leadership election organizing committee this week to select the timing, entry requirements and voting process for the eventual leadership race and the days and weeks to come will inform what that final ballot looks like.
The decisions the party, its caucus and its members make now and into the fall will ultimately decide the party’s fate — but while there are many hurdles ahead, the UCP remains a brand rife with political opportunity.
The 2023 election will be a war, but count the UCP out at your own peril.
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