The election of Danielle Smith as leader of the far-right Wildrose Alliance Party today creates a historic opportunity for Albertans to have a government that will truly represent their economic and democratic aspirations.
And, no, I do not mean government by the Wildrose Alliance led by Ms. Smith. That would constitute a travesty, perhaps even a tragedy, hardly an opportunity.
I mean a government that would provide the moderate, centre-left policies that poll after poll after poll shows are desired by a majority of Canadians, including Albertans – at least when you separate the question of policy from that of party label.
Because Ms. Smith will without any doubt divide the right-wing vote in Alberta – split it wide open, more like – her rise must be seen as a sign of historic opportunity for supporters of such sensible, progressive, centre-left policies as truly public health care, responsible energy royalties, a healthy environment, fair public auto insurance, affordable public education and universally accessible continuing care for seniors.
We can achieve these sensible, laudable, affordable and popular policy goals, however, only if we can form a government.
We can only exploit the rift on the right to form a centre-left government if we can set aside enough of our differences to work together to exploit the historic opportunity Ms. Smith’s selection by the party of the extreme right embodies.
We need to do something now because the opportunity will be short lived.
Voter support for the Wildrose Alliance is certain to soften as Albertans realize market fundamentalists like Ms. Smith will not protect their health-care system any more enthusiastically than the market fundamentalists in Mr. Stelmach’s cabinet. That some seem to believe so now is testimony to how skilled Ms. Smith has been at keeping her true beliefs under the radar and what a poor job the mainstream media does of reporting anything other than a mere horserace.
Do not expect the people who finance Alberta’s right-wing parties – be they our unprogressive Conservatives under Premier Ed Stelmach or the more market fundamentalist faction represented by Ms. Smith – to permit this division of the right to persist for long.
They are tolerating it for the moment because they see a short-term opportunity to push Alberta’s government even farther right at a time when people all over the world crave an end to the disastrous right-wing policies that both the Wildrose Alliance and the Conservatives represent.
They believe they can get away with it because the centre-left in Alberta is poorly led, fractured and deeply committed to its divisions. There is no way an entity like the Wildrose Alliance could get corporate support in, say, British Columbia or Manitoba, where viable and credible parties exist on the left.
Sad to say, their assessment of the leadership of Alberta’s centre-left parties may well be correct.
But I see reason to hope that the supporters of those parties can get through to their leadership because the situation is so different now than it was even a few weeks ago.
This may not be obvious for a little time. The next big news hit is likely to be that some far-right Liberal has bolted for the Alliance – not much of a loss to the Liberals and little gain to the right, if you ask me. A few Conservatives disillusioned with Premier Stelmach’s weak performance may follow.
The media will be unable to resist playing this as an unstoppable Wildrose juggernaut. Mr. Stelmach and his inner circle, I expect, will panic and respond by trying to match the Alliance policy for policy – moving away from the positions of the centre he really needs to adopt to protect his mandate.
The more significant story will be the political opportunities for the moderate left created by the competition for far-right votes that I predict Ms. Smith’s election will encourage.
In the recent past, facing an unshakeable Conservative monolith, die-hard supporters of both the Liberals and the New Democrats could argue that even though their policies are quite similar they owed it to their bases to stick with their damaged brands and fight each other with a fury they never spent on the government. If this didn’t do much for the people of Alberta, it was not such a big deal because their position seemed so hopeless.
The rift on the right changes that. Whatever else you may think of Ms. Smith, she is a game changer in Alberta politics!
It is unrealistic to hope a united party of the centre-left with policies we can all live with, a new undamaged name and a popular leader can be cobbled together before the next general election. (Personally, I could live with “the Alberta Party” led by Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, but never mind that for the moment.)
But we can work out a modus operandi to defeat both a government whose incompetence is dragging Alberta down and hold off a right-wing threat that would do even more damage.
To do that, we will need to put the idea of public service ahead of our partisan goals.
We need to communicate our support for this change to our leaders in the Liberals and the New Democrats.
Here’s to hope!