In his April 7th column for the Ottawa Citizen, MLI’s Brian Lee Crowley writes about Alberta politics and how Danielle Smith, the ambitious and personable leader of the Wildrose Party who is leading the anti-Tory insurgency, has Albertans ready to throw the Tories out. The full column below:
By Brian Lee Crowley, Ottawa Citizen, April 7, 2012
If the polls hold good until then, the Alberta election due on April 23 is likely to produce that rarest of all political animals: a change of government in Edmonton.
There have only been four such changes since Sir Wilfrid Laurier carved the province of Alberta (and next door Saskatchewan) out of the western territories in 1905. Like the rest of the west, Albertans were diehard Liberals in the early years. Then in 1921 they had their first romance with a local populist party, turfing the Grits and installing the United Farmers of Alberta in power. Fourteen years later they were swept away in their turn by Social Credit, a party whose most successful premier was Ernest Manning, father of Reform party founder Preston Manning.
The Socreds were unbeatable until 1971, when Peter Lougheed, a lawyer and former Canadian Football League player, ousted them after a long period spent building the Progressive Conservative Party in the province. The Tories have ruled ever since, with one important qualification.
By the late 1980s, Albertans were tired of the Tories. Lougheed had retired and was replaced by Don Getty, a man who appeared more interested in golf than governing. Always fiscally conservative, Albertans were increasingly distressed by the Tories’ propensity to run repeated deficits despite rich natural resources revenues. The Liberals, under fiscally tight-fisted Laurence Decore, were suddenly highly competitive, and Don Getty retired rather than face defeat.
Threatened on their right flank, the Tories were shaken out of their complacent belief that power was theirs by right. Despite the hostility of much of the party establishment, a conservative populist, broadcaster and former Calgary mayor by the name of Ralph Klein electrified the party rank and file with a promise to return to more traditional Alberta values. Albertans got the renewal they sought by regime change within the Tories rather than by kicking them out. Klein renewed the Tories’ dominance, but only by bringing the party closer to Alberta’s conservative mainstream.
That episode tells us a lot about Alberta politics. In a province dominated by a single party for protracted periods, able people with political ambitions don’t waste their time on unelectable parties. As an immovable fixture on the Alberta scene, the Tories attract many people who in other places would be Liberals or New Democrats. The political centre of gravity of the party is constantly pulled to the left. But that always risks alienating conservative Albertans.
This conundrum can be solved by periodic leadership contests that permit the emergence of strong conservative figures that renew the party’s bona fides with the electorate, as Klein did. But, in recent years, that leadership process has failed the party badly. First it gave the crown to Ed Stelmach after Klein’s retirement. Ineffectual Stelmach proved a huge disappointment. He alienated the oil and gas industry with an ill-conceived revamping of the provincial royalty regime, and on his watch deficits became the rule, threatening Klein’s signal achievement: the elimination of the province’s net debt.
Albertans made their displeasure known and Stelmach barely lasted a term. But his replacement was, judged by traditional Alberta values, no better. Alison Redford, a former United Nations official, brought lots of brains to the job but was another champion of the wing of the party accustomed to seeing government as a means to reward favoured interest groups.
In the recent provincial budget, as high oil prices fill provincial coffers, the best the new premier could do was to promise to balance the budget in 2013 while spending liberally and drawing down billions in provincial savings to make the deficit appear smaller than it really was. Worst of all, she communicated to Albertans, famously jealous of their individual freedom, that she was a far better judge of what was good for them than they were.
Albertans therefore look like scratching their once-in-a-generation itch to throw the bums out.
Danielle Smith, the ambitious and personable leader of the Wildrose Party (the wildrose is Alberta’s provincial flower) who is leading the anti-Tory insurgency, enjoys quite remarkable levels of public esteem. Her approval rating is 56 per cent, while only 32 per cent of Albertans disapprove of her. Premier Redford enjoys a respectable 48 per cent approval rating, but that is almost matched by her 43-per-cent disapproval. That puts Smith in the driver’s seat. The polls are all converging on the same result: a comfortable Wildrose majority.
Smith’s great accomplishment isn’t her personal popularity, however. It is having taken a marginal party full of loudmouths, troublemakers and cranks and turning it into a credible political vehicle. If, come election day, Albertans still feel that they can trust Smith to run a competent conservative government, she will become an instant national political star and slayer of one of Canada’s longest running political dynasties.
Brian Lee Crowley is the managing director of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute, an independent non-partisan public policy think tank in Ottawa: macdonaldlaurier.ca.