This column was published in Friday’s edition of the Saint City News. It was written before the Dec. 11 Angus Reid poll was published, and even a few days before the Renew Party arrived on the scene. I filed early because I was planning to head out for a few days of sunshine along the beaches of the Sea of Cortez, which that substantial English part of my genetic makeup believes should really be known as the Sea of Drake, or better yet the Sea of Cavendish. I said nothing of this, of course, to the locals. I’m not sure I would have written it any differently if I had heard about the launch of Renew – I don’t think it really changes that much, for the moment at least. Since my departure, I suppose, much has happened here in Alberta. I see, for example, that the Renew Website is now up and running – I will have more to say about that later. However, I was a good boy and went the entire time without looking at the Internet, other than to check my emails for emergency communications from home. No iPhone. No laptop. No news sites. No news. Refreshing! (Not!)
In the face of the lame performance by Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government, the Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith would have a real chance of forming the government of Alberta if a general election were held any time soon. Sad to say, the Liberals and New Democrats would not.
This is not because Alberta voters are by nature or inclination particularly “conservative” or right wing, as is certain to become the self-serving mythology among leaders and supporters of the two parties of the centre-left if the Alliance bests them in the next election.
Rather, it is because Ms. Smith and the Alliance are pursuing a strategy that really can establish their credibility as an alternative government at a time many Albertans crave an end to Mr. Stelmach’s blundering regime. The Liberals and New Democrats are not.
Consider the Alliance’s approach to energy policy. This is an area that could pose a real liability for a party like the Alliance, perceived by many as being too close to the energy industry. But by creating a “task force” to publicly consult “industry leaders, academics, researchers and other experts who can help us develop a sound, integrated and sensible energy policy” they are acting as if they already are the government. This is a powerful image compared with the accident-prone Stelmach government as it careens from crisis to crisis.
Meanwhile, the Liberals and New Democrats – to quote Spiro Agnew channeling Nixon speechwriter William Safire – seem like nattering nabobs of negativism, endlessly attacking the government on many issues but proposing few meaningful alternatives.
The Alliance is also cleverly using task force imagery to go after the pay and perks enjoyed by Members of the Legislative Assembly, an issue on which the Liberals and NDP are almost as vulnerable as the government simply by merit of having been in the Legislature so long.
The Alberta New Democrats, of course, are a pure opposition party, with limited but enduring appeal based on the idea they are the “party of conscience.” Without being part of a broader coalition, they are unlikely ever to form a government. But their market niche will remain relatively secure.
For the Liberals, however, it’s disastrous that Leader David Swann can’t seem to set out the policies he would pursue as premier in a way that resonates with Albertans. Merely listing the many faults of Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives on the Liberal Website or producing cute YouTube videos that slam the Wildrose Alliance leader as another deficit-creating fiscal conservative won’t cut it.
If the Liberals are to succeed, they need to articulate a vision of their own that not only makes sense to Albertans, but appears achievable in a real province. That is where the Wildrose Alliance is now building credibility.
This is happening in the face of a pretty obvious opportunity for the Liberals, and the NDP too if they can find a way to work together.
After all, it would be hard for Mr. Stelmach to appeal to both the Alliance’s extremist base and to the majority of essentially moderate Albertans. He’s counting on Dr. Swann and NDP Leader Brian Mason being unable to figure out how to appeal to the moderate centre while he outflanks the Alliance from the right before the election he’s promised in 2012.
By now, everyone in Alberta knows Ed Stelmach has no plan. The trouble is, an awful lot of Albertans suspect David Swann and Brian Mason don’t have one either. That’s the main reason they’re looking hopefully at Danielle Smith.
It’s not too late for the Liberals and New Democrats to change this, but it will be soon.