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Alberta’s right forms an imperfect union

It's a deal that any true blue, right winger in Alberta knew had to happen eventually, as distasteful as the thought is for many.

But the tentative unification agreement announced Thursday between the Wildrose and Progressive Conservative parties does one thing that is inarguable: it gives conservative forces in the province a far greater chance of returning to power.

While the deal still has to be ratified by members of both parties, it certainly brings the two warring factions one giant step closer to a merger – one that has enormous political implications for both the province and the country.

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Related: Alberta's Wildrose, Conservatives to merge, will hold leadership convention

NDP leader Rachel Notley will be publicly sanguine about the development; it's extremely difficult to rattle this woman. But she knows this is not good news for her party's chances of re-election in two years' time.

Video: Kenney says united Wildrose, PC party putting Alberta above egos (The Canadian Press)

The NDP took advantage of a divided right in the last election. It's a political circumstance most believe the New Democrats need in order to have any chance of holding on to office. Now they have to pray the deal somehow gets voted down.

And it could.

While PC leader Jason Kenney and Wildrose leader Brian Jean were all smiles on Thursday, both men know that there are elements in their parties who are dead-set against this union. There is a lot of bad blood between the two camps that is not going to suddenly disappear as a result of this pact. Not a chance.

The merger terms include 14 founding principles that seem designed to appeal to both progressives ("universal access to high quality, publicly-funded health care") and small 'c' conservatives ("a robust civil society made up of free individuals, strong families and voluntary associations").

Still, should the agreement be validated, there is a lot of healing that will need to be done, especially after a new leader is elected. In fact, it will be that person's first priority; addressing the deep, deep wounds and divisions that exist. It could take years, in some cases.

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People's feelings will, in many instances, be tied to whoever emerges as leader of what would be called the United Conservative Party. Both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean have declared their intention to seek the job at a convention in October. Many seem to believe Mr. Kenney will blow the doors off any leadership race, just like he did when he assumed control of the Tories in March.

I'm not so sure.

People underestimate Mr. Jean. He is not a particularly charismatic or compelling individual, granted. But he did come in and rescue Wildrose after his predecessor, Danielle Smith, crossed the floor with a small army of her colleagues in 2014 to join forces with the Conservatives. It was a disaster, one that many thought spelled the end of Wildrose as a political entity.

Far from it. Mr. Jean not only helped stabilize the party, he helped it grow – and people in the province have noticed.

A recent poll showed that a Wildrose party under Mr. Jean was by far the first choice among those asked who they'd vote for if an election were held today. He received 37 per cent support among leaning and decided voters, compared to 29 per cent for the PCs under Mr. Kenney and 24 per cent for Ms. Notley's New Democrats. One does not have to be a math genius to see the immediate consequences of a unified right in Alberta for the current NDP government.

What was also fascinating about the poll was that the provincial Tories did not get any bump from Mr. Kenney's leadership triumph. So, it's far from a given that Jason Kenney has this thing wrapped up, his immense organizing skills aside.

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But whether it's Mr. Kenney, or Mr. Jean, or some yet unnamed contender – hello Rona Ambrose! – the result has huge policy implications for Canada. Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is more than just a curious bystander in all this.

Both Mr. Kenney and Mr. Jean have indicated they are not fans of Ms. Notley's ambitious climate change initiatives, and have vowed to undo much of her good work. They have condemned the carbon tax the NDP has put in place, and even suggested they might work to roll it back somehow. The two men certainly have allies on that front in Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and Manitoba Premier Brian Pallister.

There is much that remains to be seen. But there is a far greater likelihood after today there will once again be a strong conservative front in the West.

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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