Brian Mulroney recently said he no longer recognized himself in the Conservative Party. I’m no conservative, but I sympathize with him. The current Conservative Party just isn’t the conservative party we knew for most of our history.

It seems to be focussed on the economy at the expense of everything else. It is so infatuated with the oil industry, it can’t come up with a coherent climate policy. It is frequently outright anti-science and anti-intellectual in its attitudes and policies. The arts seem to be no more than an afterthought. And social programs exist to provide a source of budget-cutting. Universities are seen as mere job factories. The social conservative congregation is still there but is kept in the backroom less it do something embarrassing.

It didn’t used to be this way. When it was the Progressive Conservative Party it actually did progressive things.

When John Diefenbaker ruled in Ottawa, he appointed the first woman cabinet minister and the first Indigenous person to the Senate. His government passed the Canadian Bill of Rights and granted the vote to Indigenous people. It eliminated racial discrimination in immigration and in foreign policy stood against apartheid in South Africa.

Brian Mulroney also made a statement on human rights. He, like Diefenbaker, was a leader against apartheid. Facing down his fellow conservatives Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, he supported sanctions on South Africa. He was also an international leader on environmental issues such as acid rain and depletion of the ozone layer.

Conservative leadership on human rights and the environment was expected. (After all conservationist and conservative are practically the same word.) Today, leadership on such issues is more surprise than expectation.

The big change came when the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada merged with (some would say was absorbed by) the Canadian Alliance to become the Conservative Party of Canada. The Alliance, formerly the Reform Party, was a child of Alberta populism led by its chief intellectual, Preston Manning. With the loss of “progressive” from the name came the loss of “progressive” from the philosophy. The drift echoed that in the U.S. described in my post “The Republican counter-revolution rolls on.”

The Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta suffered a similar fate when it merged with (was absorbed by?) the Wildrose Party, yet another of Alberta’s populist creations, to become the United Conservative Party (UCP). Gone was the moderate conservatism of Peter Lougheed and his successors.

The federal party recently attempted a return to moderation under leader Erin O’Toole. O’Toole said kind things about carbon rates and labour unions and was enthusiastically endorsed by Brian Mulroney, but it didn’t take. His party lost the 2021 election, despite winning more votes than the Liberals (there’s first-past-the-post making mischief again), and the party turfed him.

The populists seem firmly entrenched awaiting one of their own, the Trumpist Pierre Poilievre, to assume leadership in September. In Alberta, where the UCP is also having a leadership race, the leading contender is Danielle Smith, one of those party members current Premier Kenney collectively referred to as “lunatics.”

So, are progressive conservatives gone forever? Extinct? Or will at least one of the parties inch back toward the centre? We should get an indication in the fall. I’m not optimistic.

One thought on “How Alberta populists wrecked conservatism”
  1. I have to say I really disliked Brian Mulroney in general but his human rights stances, especially on South Africa, were amazing. Much as I hate to say it, he really has statemanesque qualifications in the human right and refugee areas.

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