New Conservative leader will have to play a balancing act with Alberta, experts say

Experts say the best way the new Conservative leader can show Alberta it matters is to strike a balance between promoting the province’s interests and uniting the country. 

Erin O’Toole was elected as the party’s new federal head Sunday night, after a record-breaking, lengthy contest interrupted by the pandemic. 

Alberta has been a prominent feature of O’Toole’s path to victory. He launched his campaign in Calgary and received the endorsement of Premier Jason Kenney. 

He won the province, scoring double the points of his main rival Peter MacKay by the final ballot. 

But experts say Alberta can’t be a siloed focus because, like a leadership race, it takes the whole country to win a general election. 

“Them going from 69 per cent to 80 per cent [of the vote] in Alberta isn’t going to help the Conservative Party. They have to win suburban Toronto, suburban Vancouver,” Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, said. 

O’Toole has pledged support for the oil and gas sector, and has spoken out against the carbon tax. 

He’s been vocal about his party’s need to take environmental policy seriously, while keeping Canadian energy competitive with global market prices. 

Bratt warned that the policies that attract votes in Ontario may not resonate in Alberta. 

“He needs to come up with a climate plan that doesn’t alienate Saskatchewan and Alberta and can attract voters in Ontario and B.C. And that’s not going to be an easy task for him.”

So far there has not been much detail from O’Toole about his own version of a climate plan. 

What happens with Wexit

The simmering regional tensions don’t stop at climate policy.

Arundeep Singh Sinhu, an organizer for the O’Toole campaign in Alberta, said the leader understands the complexities of the province, including the separatist wing represented by Wexit Canada.

“He gave them hope that there’s still a future for Alberta within federation and I really feel like Erin’s the last best hope we have for keeping Canada together for at least another generation.”

Holding the country — and the party — together was a concern expressed by outgoing leader Andrew Scheer. The experts agree a large part of O’Toole’s energy in Alberta will be spent learning how to manage western alienation. 

Bratt said there’s already an indication he’s up to the challenge of unity. 

“His victory speech was able to reach all segments of the Conservative Party. He could speak to moderates … he could speak to social conservatives. He could speak region to region.” 

Former leadership contender Rick Peterson agreed the speech was a positive first impression. 

“I thought already he showed an openness and understanding of where he needs to go, which is towards the center, towards the moderate voters.”

Sidhu said the best way O’Toole can show Alberta it matters is by promoting it in other regions. 

“Help[ing] communicate the message to the rest of the country, especially in the GTA, about the importance of Alberta in confederation will do more for us than pandering to us.”

The Kenney factor

O’Toole was gleeful about securing Kenney’s vote of confidence. The new leader previously said Kenney’s endorsement holds more weight than his others, admitting he’s relieved the premier didn’t join the leadership race because he likely would have won. 

The premier congratulated O’Toole on his win, calling him a “brilliant, principled patriot” with a commitment to a “fair deal for the West.”

Bratt said it’s a complicated power dynamic. 

“When it was Kenney and Scheer, it was clear that Kenney dominated that relationship,” he said. “So does O’Toole, now that he has his own power base, does he establish his own name or does he become a shadow of Jason Kenney?”

Alberta is a Conservative stronghold and has been for decades. There’s only one federal riding the party doesn’t hold and Peterson wants a full sweep of the province in the next federal election. 

He said O’Toole could be the type of leader needed to snatch Edmonton-Strathcona from the NDP. However, he said there’s a fundamental question his party needs to be able to answer if it wants to form government — one O’Toole needs to address. 

“Do we have the party with the ideas that are going to put Canada back to work.”

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