The most engaging and promising politicians in Alberta today are two women at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
Rachel Notley of the Alberta NDP and Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance Party are the kind of engaging public figures any political party would give its ideological eyeteeth to possess. Ms. Notley, 46, is a labour lawyer and first-term MLA for the riding of Edmonton-Strathcona. Ms. Smith, 39, is a former journalist and TV personality with ties to right-wing think tanks like the Fraser Institute. Both are good public speakers and hard workers.
If you could be a fly on the wall at local meetings of any of Alberta’s other political parties, the question you would hear rank and file activists asking themselves and each other would be, “Why the heck don’t we have candidates like that?”
Nevertheless, despite their undoubted talents and remarkable political skills, both Ms. Smith and Ms. Notley face critical challenges, not least because of the high expectations they generate among supporters and opponents alike.
As a standard-bearer for the left-of-centre New Democrats, Ms. Notley has long climb up in the eyes of Alberta’s traditionally conservative voters. But there is a tremendous amount of goodwill for her as well – some among older voters who remember her late father, Grant Notley, the man who led the Alberta NDP to its high-water mark in the early 1980s, but much more among electors from all parties who appreciate her tireless efforts in the Legislature and her ability to stay in the media spotlight day after day.
These two points would be enough to overcome many of the natural disadvantages a party like the NDP must bear in the place known as Wild Rose Country. A much bigger problem for Ms. Notley, though, is how to gracefully ascend to her natural position as the leader of the NDP and indeed Alberta’s entire centrist opposition.
NDP Leader Brian Mason is a fine man who has worked hard for many years to keep the New Democrat brand viable in Alberta. He has many loyalists within the party’s ranks. He keeps the Edmonton-Highlands riding safe for the NDP. But his great contributions notwithstanding, he has not caught fire with voters and never will.
What’s more, one of these days Mr. Mason’s going to settle down to a nice retirement. He may not want to hear this message just yet, but the time for a new leader of the two-member caucus to be anointed is before the next election, when voters and the media are certain to be captivated by the idea of a contest between two strong, capable and articulate women.
As for Ms. Smith, as a candidate of the ideological right who has never held a seat in the Legislature, she faces a slightly different challenge.
She’s done well so far thanks in large part to her many fans in the media and effective fund-raising among American-influenced Calgary energy companies that wanted to push the government of Conservative Premier Ed Stelmach further to the right.
But to a large extent, that strategy has already worked for the corporate sector. They’ve squeezed the energy policy they want out of the Conservatives, and as a bonus out of the faltering Liberals as well. So Smith is going to have to offer something more to keep their loyalty – to wit: build credibility with voters.
The key moment for Ms. Smith will be at the Alliance’s annual general meeting June 25 and 26 in Red Deer. She has proved in the seven months since she became leader that she is an able spokesperson for the right. But now even conservative voters need to see a little more.
So, first, the Wildrose Alliance needs to demonstrate it can put on a well-organized convention. If the Wildrosers can’t hold an entertaining, well-paced and media-savvy event in Red Deer, no one will believe they can actually run a government.
More important, she desperately needs the convention to end with a credible policy platform that won’t frighten cautious Alberta voters, who if spooked will flee back to Mr. Stelmach’s comfortable old Conservatives.
That means no more talk about getting out of the Canada Pension Plan, dumping the RCMP or policy changes that would establish a two-tier health-care system. Indeed, some of these points have already disappeared from the policy section of the Alliance’s Website. But that doesn’t mean that they’re not near and dear to the hearts of the party’s far-right base, which is always ready to head out for the territories at the drop of a ten-gallon hat and start a new splinter party even farther to the right.
If either Ms. Smith or Ms. Notley can overcome the challenges they face in the time before the next election – which Premier Stelmach says will be in 2012, but which in fact may be much sooner – they have the opportunity to remake Alberta’s political history.
If they both succeed, they will make Alberta politics more interesting than those of any other province in Canada.
And if neither does? Well, expect the same old same old.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.