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Commentary: Vote splitting is a Tory nightmare

Can Kenney right this listing UCP ship?
Nelson Chris web
Chris Nelson is a syndicated columnist. File photo

It was the obvious pathway to victory and remains Jason Kenney’s foremost achievement in provincial politics.

This slam-dunk, towards becoming Alberta’s 18th premier, arose long before any provincial election was called.

Success was guaranteed - given the unease Rachael Notley’s NDP government aroused in parts of Alberta - when Kenney reunited the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose outfits under his United Conservative Party banner.

But the problem with erecting big tents is that those finding themselves suddenly squished together rarely transform into some happy band of brothers and sisters. That much became publically obvious last week.

More than a quarter of Kenney’s caucus is questioning him by publically disagreeing with reinstated Covid-19 restrictions placed upon restaurants, bars, stores and gyms across Alberta.

Many dissenters are rural MLAs, once the backbone of the defunct Wildrose Party. 

Well, actually not quite so defunct: some supporters never took to the entire UCP concept from the get-go. Instead they formed the Wildrose Independence Party, which, in January, polled nine per cent, while the UCP dropped to 26, as the opposition NDP stood, grinning, at a heady 41. 

Ouch. And that was before this current Covid inspired rebellion. No wonder Kenney is trying to square the circle by painting this whole caucus rebellion as some fine and sturdy example of parliamentary democracy in action. 

For Tories, attempting to placate the interests of rural representatives with those of an ever-growing urban membership has been a delicate balancing act for decades.

Back in the mid-80s it was compulsory seatbelts legislation that caused a vicious inner battle between those similar factions during Peter Lougheed’s reign. Yes, eventually, in the summer of 1987, Alberta joined the rest of Canada in ‘buckling-up’, but the previous split was real and it was nasty.

But if there’s solace in such history for Kenney it’s thin gruel, because Lougheed, and his successor Don Getty, had two advantages he lacks.

First and foremost is cash. Yes, the provincial budget was stretched 35 years ago, but energy royalties were re-emerging, as Mulroney’s Tories ditched much of the punitive legislation Pierre Trudeau previously imposed upon Alberta’s most valuable resource. Back then, we weren’t borrowing $18-billion a year to keep the lights on and the provincial debt was miniscule. 

Secondly, the NDP was an afterthought. Sure, the party would grab a few seats, but the provincial Liberals usually grabbed more votes. Regardless, opposition votes were effectively split.

The upshot being dissenting Tories could either lump it or leave it. Keep close to that tempting, well-supplied trough or instead risk wandering into the political wilderness forever more.

Those days are gone. Today, Notley’s lot needn’t worry some about other party taking a big, nasty chunk from its support. Meanwhile those well-funded public sector unions remain steadfastly behind her, having made their eternal opposition to the Kenney government as plain as their latest TV campaigns. 

Nope, these days vote splitting is a Tory nightmare.

So, with little money to grease those well-worn wheels of political bribery and the opposition presenting a united front, what can Kenney do? Can he right this listing UCP ship?

He has time. We’re a few years out from an election, after all. But trying to appease all those in that big tent is folly. Better instead to rally around a cause. 

OK, the pandemic is the battleground. Therefore, a hugely successful vaccination campaign is imperative. 

Yet currently, most provinces are outpacing Alberta. So, there’s the rub. Fix that: make this province number one in jabs delivered per capita and build from there. Hey, and it’ll save people’s lives into the bargain. Isn’t that a mission worth undertaking?

Chris Nelson is a syndicated columnist.