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A centrist's gambit to shake up Alberta politics
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As the newly consolidated right and the incumbent left prepare to duke it out, a two-MLA party is moving to make the middle more relevant in provincial politics, Carrie Tait writes, by starting a leadership race to bring the centre back to the forefront
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By CARRIE TAIT
  
  

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Saturday, November 11, 2017 – Page S1

EDMONTON -- The Leader of the tiny Alberta Party will step down next week, clearing the way for a leadership race as voters and legislators weary of an increasingly polarized political landscape search for a centrist alternative.

The shakeup is in response to United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney's swift consolidation of power on the right, creating an urgency among centrists of all stripes to regroup. While the Alberta Party currently has just two MLAs, it is attracting support from notable names in Alberta politics and is working to lure the two former Progressive Conservative MLAs who now sit as independents because of their distaste for Mr. Kenney.

Mr. Kenney secured the leadership of the new UCP on Oct. 28 after playing a crucial role in the merger of the PC and Wildrose parties this summer. His rise, coupled with disappointment in the ruling New Democratic Party, has kindled the hopes of those who feel comfortable with neither. Both the NDP and the UCP have lost MLAs who were disillusioned with their respective leaders.

Greg Clark, the Alberta Party's departing Leader, said in an interview this week that a leadership campaign will help his small organization raise cash and bolster its profile.

Leadership contestants - Mr. Clark has not decided if he will be among them - would have to tour the province and pitch ideas, key steps in recruiting candidates for a general election, attracting new members and persuading voters to take the party seriously.

"The political sands in Alberta are shifting so quickly that anything is possible," Mr. Clark said. "It gives us the best chance of being strong enough in 2019 to compete to win."

But the party faces significant obstacles.

It is short on time and cash, and Mr. Kenney and Premier Rachel Notley are savvy leaders. The party must quickly form a campaign platform that would convince voters on the right that it can best handle the deficit and attract businesses, all the while appeasing those on the left, who worry that progressive social policies will be brushed aside in the pursuit of fiscal responsibility.

The Alberta Party may have a plan, but it is starting from a position of weakness.

Mr. Clark will officially resign as leader at its annual meeting in Red Deer on Nov. 18. The two-person party hopes to host a leadership convention in February, 2018, according to a strategic planning document obtained by The Globe and Mail. Alberta's next general election is scheduled for 2019, although that could be moved up at the government's discretion.

Mr. Clark said regardless of whether he decides to run again for leader, he will continue to represent Calgary-Elbow in the legislature and intends to run for the seat once again in the next election. The existing board, he said, was involved as he considered his leadership options.

The Alberta Party has made small gains since Mr. Kenney sparked an overhaul in the province's politics, prompting Albertans to evaluate their options. Rick Fraser, the MLA for Calgary-South East who was twice elected as a PC, abandoned the UCP in the middle of its leadership race in September. The Alberta Party is trying to convince him to join its ranks. It is also trying to lure Richard Starke, the MLA for Vermilion-Lloydminster and a former cabinet minister. He challenged Mr. Kenney for the PC crown in March and refused to join the UCP after his old party merged with the Wildrose. He sits with Mr. Fraser on the independent benches.

Karen McPherson, the rookie MLA for Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill, elected under the NDP banner in 2015, joined the Alberta Party at the end of October. Her arrival, which brought the party's caucus to two, prompted the speaker to increase the party's budget and award her and Mr. Clark the right to ask the government more questions in the legislature.

Ms. McPherson, who does not intend to run for leader, is more reserved than Mr. Clark in her expectations for the party's electoral chances should the government send voters to the polls in 2019.

"It would be great if we formed a minority government," she said in an interview in her office. The timeline, she said, is too tight for the party to win a majority of Alberta's 87 ridings. "Given another year of runway, it would be a possibility," she said. "Then there's that much more time to build the organization, that much more time to fundraise."

Indeed, time and money will be two of the Alberta Party's greatest obstacles, according to political observers.

"For people to give money to the Alberta Party, they have to have a sense they could win - a realistic shot at winning," said Lori Williams, a policy-studies professor at Mount Royal University. "That isn't there now."

Even if the coalition is able to generate momentum with floor crossings, a leadership convention and agreeable policy, Ms. Notley and Mr. Kenney are skilled politicians with a head start. "There is probably not enough time [for the Alberta Party] to win over Albertans as the alternative," Prof. Williams said.

Anthony Sayers, a political-studies professor at the University of Calgary, does not believe voters will flock to the fringe party based on its merits.

"The Alberta Party is bordering on the non-existent," he said. "They won't be a force."

If voters do turn to the party, it will not be because it picked a new leader and designed fresh policy, he said.

"It won't be as much the Alberta Party saying, 'We're great, here's our politics,' " Prof. Sayers said. "It will be Albertans saying: We're tired of the hard left and right of Jason Kenney or Rachel Notley."

The Alberta Party sold about 385 tickets to its annual meeting, Mr. Clark said. Members paid $99, meaning the aspirational party raised about $38,000. The outfit, however, will need much more to run a leadership race, assemble a viable slate of candidates and pose a serious challenge come the next election.

The party, according to the road map outlined in the strategy document, is counting on Alberta Together for cash. The not-for-profit organization is in the centre of the political spectrum. It conducts research and aims to train future political players.

Alberta Together will solicit donors to collectively contribute at least $50,000 directly to the Alberta Party to defray the cost of running the leadership election, according to the party's strategy document.

It will also help sell memberships to diminish the chances of an "external takeover," the document said. Furthermore, Alberta Together will help attract "major, credible" leadership candidates.

Katherine O'Neill, Alberta Together's executive director, said her organization and the party have not struck a deal: "There's no official alignment," she said. (Disclosure: Ms. O'Neill is a former reporter at The Globe and Mail.)

However, some of Alberta Together's major organizers, such as former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel, are hustling to support the Alberta Party, she said.

Stephen Carter, the political strategist behind Naheed Nenshi's successful bid to become mayor of Calgary in 2010 and Alison Redford's winning centrist campaign for premier under PC colours in 2012, is one of the backroom volunteers trying to transform the Alberta Party into a credible operation.

Other supporters include Blake Pedersen, a former Wildrose MLA now running for a seat on the Alberta Party's board.

He was among the nine Wildrose members who crossed the floor to join the PCs in 2014. Patty Wickstrom is also chasing a board seat.

She works for Ron Liepert, a Conservative Party of Canada MP and a former provincial PC cabinet minister.

Mr. Clark, who is 46 and in 2015 became the Alberta Party's first elected MLA, acknowledges that beating the NDP and UCP, and trumping the Alberta Liberal Party as the centrist choice, is an ambitious goal.

"It is a big hill to climb, but it is not impossible," he said. "The biggest bank account doesn't always win."

Associated Graphic

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark, seen in Calgary on Friday, will step down from heading the relatively small party as it tries to capture voters caught between the province's two main factions.

TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Above: Departing Leader of the Alberta Party Greg Clark, left, and MLA Karen McPherson, seen in Calgary on Friday, say they hope the leadership race for the party will inspire new support and fundraising down the road. Below: The consolidated right of Alberta, represented by the United Conservative Party, which is led by Jason Kenney, centre, has sparked small gains for the Alberta Party with its shakeup of provincial politics.

ABOVE, LEFT: TODD KOROL/THE GLOBE AND MAIL; BELOW: JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS


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