Alberta Party seeks a new way forward after failing to elect MLAs

The energy was palpable that Saturday in November 2017, when 400 members of the Alberta Party packed a Red Deer hotel conference room for the party’s annual general meeting.

Just three weeks earlier, Jason Kenney had been elected leader of the United Conservative Party and his name was on the lips of everyone in the conference room.  

Kenney was too socially conservative, they said. Not progressive enough for modern Alberta voters.

The Alberta Party, on the other hand, saw itself as a centrist option that represented the values of many Albertans, much like the old Progressive Conservative Party before it merged with the Wildrose to create the UCP several months earlier.

Many people in the room were former Progressive Conservatives who were uncomfortable with the UCP led by Kenney.

Greg Clark, a Calgary MLA who had just stepped down as party leader a week earlier, told the crowd that he “absolutely” believed the Alberta Party would win government in 2019.

“I believe that we are on the right path to get there and together, my friends, that’s exactly what we’ll do,” he said to loud cheers.

A year and a half later, Jason Kenney is Alberta’s 18th premier, after voters elected 63 UCP candidates to the 87-seat legislature. The NDP captured the balance of seats.

And the Alberta Party was left without a single elected member. 

Last week, Clark came to Edmonton to pack up his office at the Federal Building after losing his Calgary-Elbow seat to the UCP’s Doug Schweitzer on April 16.

Clark was asked why the energy and sense of potential seen at the Red Deer annual meeting in 2017 didn’t translate into a better outcome for the Alberta Party in 2019. 

Always an optimist, Clark pointed to the silver linings. The party was able to run candidates in all 87 ridings; it won nearly 10 per cent of the popular vote, he said.

“But we didn’t elect an MLA,” he said. “And so we need to be honest with ourselves about how that happened and what we need to do to go forward.”

Polarization blamed

Efforts to dissect what happened are underway right now. 

Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel placed third in the race for Edmonton-McClung, behind incumbent Lorne Dach of the NDP, who was elected to a second term in office, and Laurie Mozeson of the UCP.

On election night, Mandel said that political polarization compelled people to vote for either the UCP or the NDP.

Two weeks later, he still believes that is true. The question now is what to do about it.

Stephen Mandel was chosen leader of the Alberta Party in February 2018. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Mandel is holding post-campaign debriefs with candidates to get their sense of what happened. A report will go to the party’s board of directors to consider next month. From there, Mandel said, the party’s next steps will be determined. 

“I’m optimistic the board will be positive and our candidates are very positive,” he said. “I mean, they’re frustrated, too.  Many have worked so very, very hard and they thought they’d get better results. All of us did. That’s life in politics.”

The Alberta Party now faces the herculean task of getting the attention of potential voters and raising money without having an MLA in the legislature.

Clark said the party can still have a presence on social media. It can issue news releases and propose ideas, offering another voice to perspectives from the UCP and NDP. Mandel says he will attend question period. 

Clark also suggested that there may be byelections before the next general election in 2023, pointing to ongoing RCMP investigations into Kenney’s 2017 campaign to win the UCP’s leadership race.

“That gives the Alberta Party an opportunity to be back in the legislature, build towards being, in the short-term, a good opposition, and in the longer term, governing Alberta.”

Clark was pressured to step down as Alberta Party leader in the fall of 2017 to trigger a leadership race. Mandel was chosen as the new leader several months later.

When asked whether Mandel should stay on, Clark said he should. He said Mandel did a good job recruiting high-quality candidates across the province.

As for his own future, Clark says he won’t seek elected office again but plans to work for the party behind the scenes.

“I will definitely stay engaged with the party and hope to help build and grow and elect MLAs, and ultimately be government one day.”

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