Charter schools and union busting are both standard planks of the market fundamentalist platform, so it should come as no surprise that a new ideological party like the Wildrose Alliance would adopt such policies as it tried to attract supporters on the right fringe of the political spectrum.
Likewise, opposition to women’s reproductive rights and sensitivity to “parent rights” over school curriculum animate so-called “social conservatives,” so it is natural that a new right-wing party seeking to build support would also stake out positions on these issues.
But why, for heaven’s sake, would the Wildrose Alliance advocate withdrawing from the Canada Pension Plan, a notion certain to cause grave disquiet among many potential supporters at or near retirement age, even those with strong right-wing views?
And why would the Alliance call for replacing the RCMP with a provincial police force when the Mounties enjoy such broad respect and support among the very voters the party needs most to attract?
The answers to these and other Alliance policy mysteries are found in the once-famous “Firewall Letter,” sent in 2001 to then Alberta premier Ralph Klein by Stephen Harper, Ted Morton and four other influential Alberta independentistes.
The Firewall Letter, so nicknamed because it advised Mr. Klein “to build firewalls around Alberta,” is not much spoken of any more. It was published in Conrad Black’s far-right vanity publication, the National Post, on Jan. 27, 2001. However, with Mr. Harper now occupying an important federal post, his darkly sovereignist view of the national government’s “aggressive and hostile” intentions has pretty much disappeared down the corporate media memory hole.
As the ninth anniversary of its publication approaches, however, it is worth remembering that, although sensibly ignored by the pragmatic Mr. Klein, this document was influential in the rise of the post-Progressive-Conservative neocon alliance in Canada, and its spirit clearly lives on among the supporters of the Wildrose Alliance.
The Firewall Letter specifically called for:
- Dumping the RCMP as Alberta’s provincial police force when its contract with the province expires in 2012. The letter said this was because Mr. Harper et al. did not approve of the force being “misused as a laboratory for experiments in social engineering.” (Services in two languages?)
- Getting out of the Canada Pension Plan, a la Quebec.
- Separately collecting Alberta’s income tax, also in the manner of Quebec, instead of having it collected with the federal income tax, which simplifies the paperwork for Alberta taxpayers.
- Dropping out of the national health care system to pursue Alberta’s own course not subject to the controls of the Canada Health Act. “If we lose, we can afford the financial penalties that Ottawa may try to impose under the Canada Health Act,” the letter said. (Ah, those oil revenues!)
- Using provincial referenda in the manner of Quebec’s sovereignty referendum to force Senate reform onto the national constitutional agenda.
- Reducing Alberta’s contributions through transfer payments to other provinces.
This fairly radical sovereignist project, which the letter argued was within Alberta’s existing constitutional powers, would, the authors claimed, unleash the private sector, increase individual freedom, improve public education and bring Albertans in closer touch with their provincial government.
Reflections of five of these six of these policies can be found in the Wildrose policy summary displayed on the party’s Website, albeit sometimes in circumspect language:
- “Expand the role of sheriffs to handle Provincial justice issues.” That is, to replace the RCMP as the provincial police.
- “Withdraw from the Canada Pension Plan and create an Alberta Pension Plan.”
- “Collect the Alberta personal income tax.” (Without further elaboration, this must mystify some readers, who no doubt imagined that their income taxes had in fact been collected!)
- “Hold elections for Alberta Senators at the same time as Provincial Elections.”
- “Fight for Alberta’s deserved share of federal tax dollars through a more equitable distribution of federal transfer payments and contracts.”
The disappearance of any mention of plans to escape the bonds of the Canada Health Act is likely a reflection of political pragmatism of the Alliance’s new leader, former Calgary journalist Danielle Smith, as she seeks to broaden the party’s appeal to mainstream voters.
Ms. Smith is savvy enough to realize both that the principles of the Canada Health Act are popular among Alberta voters, and that to a significant degree she and her party have been surfing on the unpopularity of recent Alberta government health policies. Indeed, she must know that the Conservative health policies now so offensive to Alberta voters, and hence so advantageous to her, in fact embody the spirit of the Firewall Letter and the neocon political movements like the Wildrose Alliance that it spawned.
If this supposition is correct, that Ms. Smith has succeeded speaks to her skill as a politician and leader. But she will face greater challenges.
The Wildrose strategy seems to call for the party to portray itself as “moderate” and “centre right,” a term frequently used by Ms. Smith, as it drives up the middle to displace a Conservative government maneuvered into foolishly trying to outflank the Alliance on the right.
To succeed at this gambit, Ms. Smith will require all her rhetorical and political skills to divert public attention from the radical program that inspired her party’s creation and which still animates many of its supporters.
That may mean dropping all reference to some of these planks at a planned party policy conference, although it is reasonable to assume they may be reintroduced as policy later on should the party be elected.
Ms. Smith can also count on the mainstream media to assist with such political legerdemain, just as it has misdirected the audience while Prime Minister Harper made his ideological history disappear in a puff of smoke.
We can expect the media again to help draw voters’ attention to the horserace between the Alliance and the Conservatives while it continues to ignore these important questions of policy.