National Column: Albertans in short supply for Tory leadership

by Chantal Hebert

For more than 20 years, a politician from Alberta has held the leading position on one side or the other in the House of Commons. That unbroken spell will come to a halt when the federal Conservatives pick a permanent successor to Stephen Harper in May.

The conspicuous absence of an Alberta candidate in the top tier of the crowded federal leadership field is one of the striking features of the ongoing battle for the Conservative crown.

Among the 14 candidates, only Deepak Obhrai hails from the province. The longest-serving MP in Parliament is not expected to make it out of the lower tier of the pack on the Conservatives’ preferential ballot.

The province’s absence is conspicuous because while the party under Harper extended its wings in Central Canada, much of the intellectual energy that has fuelled the conservative movement over the past two decades has come from the West and, in particular, from Alberta.

In different ways, Ralph Klein, Preston Manning and Harper himself all had a hand at changing some of the terms of the national conversation.

If only for that reason, it is as hard to fathom a federal Conservative leadership contest that does not feature a strong Alberta contender as it is to imagine a Liberal lineup that did not boast at least one leading aspirant from Quebec.

Yet in this campaign, Saskatchewan’s Andrew Scheer is the only candidate who can be described as having a serious shot at keeping the federal leadership torch in Western Canadian hands.

But to travel to Alberta as the campaign for Harper’s succession enters the last stretch is also to be reminded that the battle between some of the former prime minister’s presumptive heirs for the moral leadership of the Canadian right is not limited to the federal front.

Indeed, in Alberta as in Ontario, the federal front may be a secondary one.

On Saturday, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives will select a permanent replacement for the late Jim Prentice. By all accounts, the result is a foregone conclusion. Former immigration minister Jason Kenney’s widely expected leadership victory is only the first step on the path to reconciling the province’s feuding conservative clans.

Next on the agenda is the negotiation of a mutually agreeable arrangement between the Wildrose Party and the Tories and another leadership round between their respective leaders.

Kenney would like to replicate Harper’s winning federal formula and take the helm of a reunited provincial party. Wildrose Leader Brian Jean, whose party is the official opposition in Edmonton, is not inclined to hand the provincial reins to his former federal colleague without a fight.

A Mainstreet Research poll published this week reported that there would be room in that future contest for a compromise candidate liable to squeeze past Kenney and Jean.

On that score, a name that keeps coming up is that of Rona Ambrose. She will relinquish her position as interim leader once a permanent successor to Harper is chosen. Conservative insiders say they would not be surprised if she left the federal arena before the House reopens next fall. As official Opposition leader since the last election, Ambrose has had a good run. If she decided to run provincially, she would not lack for support.

Whether she wants to take on Kenney and Jean is anybody’s guess at this juncture. It is also not a given that she would win.

But there is no doubt that the leadership of a united Alberta conservative party looks like a more attractive prize than Harper’s succession.

With Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democrats languishing in third place in voting intentions, the provincial Conservatives can see a path back to power in Edmonton sooner rather than later.

The same is not true of their federal cousins. Their leadership campaign has been plagued by doubts as to whether any of the candidates has a shot at stopping Justin Trudeau from securing a second mandate or even at hanging on to the party’s current seats.

By the time he left office, Harper towered over Canada’s Conservative movement.

But with conservatives in power in Manitoba and Saskatchewan and the conservative opposition leading in the polls in Ontario and Alberta, whoever succeeds the former prime minister will have to earn his or her moral authority on the Canadian right the hard way.

Chantal Hebert is a national affairs writer. Her column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

Copyright 2017-Torstar Syndication Services

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