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Greg Clark's resignation signals the Alberta Party's time as the haven of small-l liberals is over

Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark

Give Greg Clark his due. He did manage to get elected to the Alberta Legislature, a feat no other leader of the Alberta Party has ever managed to accomplish. Not, at least, when they were a member of the Alberta Party.

Indeed, he's the only member of the party ever to be elected as such.

Yet despite a strategy of trying to sound almost as conservative as United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney for months, Clark has never really succeeded at getting the Alberta Party onto the province's political radar -- notwithstanding its possession of the best party name in Alberta politics.

Now, days after a little-known NDP backbencher named Karen McPherson crossed the floor to join the party and while rumours abound a couple of former Progressive Conservatives may soon make a similar trip, Clark has suddenly announced his intention to resign on Nov. 18 from the top job in his caucus of two.

His sudden and rather mysterious announcement the Friday before Remembrance Day almost certainly means he has been toppled in some sort of internal coup. Well, at least he's not locked in a hotel room in Saudi Arabia, so we may eventually get the chance to ask him about it.

Despite trying to give the impression he was master of his own fate in his emailed resignation message -- "I have made a decision on what I believe is the best path forward for the party and most importantly for the province" -- it's very hard to believe Clark could be very happy about this turn of events.

You'd almost think he’d been told by someone he could capitulate now and retain the chance to run again for the party in his Calgary-Elbow riding in 2019, or be run out of Red Deer at the end of a pitchfork come the Alberta Party annual general meeting scheduled to take place in that Central Alberta city on the 18th.

If there's anything to this, it means the Alberta Party -- which Clark said in his message has nearly tripled its membership since last spring -- is no longer the collection of kaffeeklatching small-l liberals it was when he signed on circa 2012.

What do you want to bet a lot of those new members are former Progressive Conservatives disillusioned with Kenney’s social conservative inclinations and Stephen-Harper-like iron grip on the new "united" Conservative party? That is, the crowd that calls itself "Alberta Together," after the PAC headed by former PC Party president Katherine O'Neill.

So what happens next?

According to Clark's emailed statement, there will be a leadership race. Maybe he'll even run in it, although he described that as a decision to be made another day. In the event, he's about as likely to win as former Wildrose Leader Brian Jean was in the recent UCP leadership race.

"We must jump-start the Alberta Party by selling memberships, raising money and raising our profile by inviting Albertans into our party to debate different visions for the future of our province," wrote Clark … or someone.

"To do that, I must step down as leader and trigger a leadership contest,” he said. "I need you to know, this was not an easy decision. And I know it's not a decision that everyone in our party agrees with."

Who might run? The speculation starts immediately: Former PC and UCP MLA Rick Fraser, who now sits as an Independent? The Legislature's stubborn lone remaining PC, Richard Starke? Premier Alison Redford's deputy premier, Thomas Lukaszuk? Doug Griffiths, who was a bright young cabinet minister under premier Ed Stelmach? Ms. O'Neill?

With the likes of former Edmonton mayor and PC cabinet minister Stephen Mandel and political operative and former Redford chief of staff Stephen Carter said to be in the mix, the race is guaranteed to be interesting.

"To give us the best chance to build a credible alternative to the NDP and UCP we need to take a calculated risk," Clark's email went on. "My sincere hope is that you will join me in enthusiastically embracing this path."

"I want you to know I am committed to running in 2019 as MLA in Calgary-Elbow," he said. "I will continue to do my work in my constituency and in the Legislature holding the government accountable and proposing better ideas." Although -- if Clark's recent performance is anything to go by -- on the economic front these are pretty much the same ideas proposed by Kenney, although without the mean-spirited social conservative spin.

"We must invite Albertans from a variety of backgrounds into our party and let them have a chance to have a voice in our future direction," the email continued. "This election is truly going to centre around the future of Alberta and the values we want in our province. I don't believe Jason Kenney represents those values and I don't believe the NDP have the ability to credibly execute a budget much less a visionary plan for the future."

Perhaps it's just the natural state of equilibrium in the new, post-PC-Dynasty politics of Alberta that there will always be two conservative parties -- a social conservative one, and a socially liberal one that shares the same market-fundamentalist economic values.

Back in the day, the argument that such a situation could not be tolerated by the province's large and powerful conservative movement lest the NDP rule forever became the raison d'etre for the union of the PCs and the Wildrose Party.

That, of course, was before Kenney's double reverse hostile takeover of both parties, and his questionable decision to then drive Tory moderates out.

Now, it would seem, they have found a home in the Alberta Party, which will soon become the New PC Party, just as the UCP has quickly morphed into the New Wildrose.

Does this mean the NDP will rule forever, under Premier Rachel Notley and a progression of successors?

Unlikely. Indeed, recent polling suggests that if Jean had been chosen UPC leader and an election held soon thereafter, he could have won in a canter.

Two weeks is a long time in politics, though, and a year and a half is a near eternity. Still, it's quite possible, if the planets line up for them the right way and Alberta's electorate remains as volatile as it has been lately, that either conservative party could defeat the NDP on its own.

Whether the changes at the Alberta Party are good news or bad news for Notley's NDP all depends on which way the votes split.

One thing is guaranteed: It keeps things interesting in what used to be the most politically boring province in the Dominion.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David Climenhaga 

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