Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Alliance Party faces its most crucial test tomorrow and Saturday in its quest to become a serious alternative to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach’s Progressive Conservative government.
Over the past few months, Ms. Smith has revealed she has talent as a populist politician of the Prairie right. With a little help from a few well-heeled friends and some smart former Reform Party strategists, the former journalist has brought the Wildrose Alliance from an easy-to-ignore fringe party of the lunatic right to a potential challenger being considered by large numbers of Alberta voters.
She was aided in this effort, of course, by Premier Stelmach’s accident-prone leadership, by fed-up Conservative backbenchers prepared to cross the floor to the opposition benches, by the stumblebum performance of the province’s Liberal Official Opposition under Leader David Swann, and by the free ride given right-wing politicians by Alberta’s mainstream media.
While none of this should diminish Ms. Smith’s remarkable accomplishment to date, it is not enough to win power for the Wildrose Alliance now or in the future because of a peculiarity of Alberta voters:
Unlike the citizens of every other province in Canada, Albertans arguably vote governments in, instead of voting them out.
If Ms. Smith truly expects to become the premier of Alberta, she is going to have to give voters a reason to vote for her and her party. She’ll have to prove, in other words, that the Wildrose Alliance is a better alternative than the Stelmach Tories. The fact Albertans are fed up with Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives will not be enough on its own to persuade them to vote for someone else.
To do that, Ms. Smith must achieve three things at the Wildrose Alliance’s crucial policy convention in Red Deer tomorrow and Saturday:
- She must put on a bravura performance.
- Her convention must be entertaining and well run.
- The policy package passed by delegates must not be so radical it frightens cautious Alberta voters.
The first two are easy, and will almost certainly come to pass. Ms. Smith would not be where she is now if she were not a talented stage performer. Her performance will have star quality unmatchable by Messrs. Stelmach or Swann.
Likewise, the convention is sure to be a good show, capable of proving to Albertans that the Wildrose Alliance is able at least to organize a big meeting without messing up.
But getting delegates to pass the policy package the party needs to become a credible alternative in the minds of Alberta voters, who are conservative in every sense of the word, will be another matter entirely.
To be blunt about this, the Wildrose Alliance has a higher percentage of far-right wingnuts than other Alberta political parties. The members of this tinfoil hat brigade are going to try to assert themselves at this policy conference. Indeed, many of them see it as their last chance to keep their Alliance on the straight and narrow ideological path they prefer.
Look no further than the policies put forward by members for consideration in Red Deer for proof of this assertion. Fully a third of the policies submitted by members are pure nuttiness, guaranteed to make the party look as if it is still in the hands of extremists.
Members of Ms. Smith’s inner circle privately cringe at the thought the old loony fringe might hijack the convention and pass a resolution calling for direct election of the premier, more health care privatization, or, as the Alberta media has finally noticed, a provincial constitution that guarantees the right of Albertans to bear arms.
This could easily happen. To see how likely it is, just count the number of battered pickup trucks with “Free the West” bumper stickers in the parking lot of Red Deer’s Capri Hotel tonight!
If it does happen, Ms. Smith and the party’s Legislative caucus of course would be under no obligation to actually push for any such thing. But they know that acknowledging this uncomfortable fact could alienate their true believers, whose votes will be precious in a tight election.
They also know that failing to acknowledge it could send mainstream voters streaming back to the Conservatives, with or without Mr. Stelmach at the helm.
This dilemma means that a week from now, Ms. Smith could be well on her way to becoming Alberta’s first woman premier. Or, about as likely, she may already be on her way into history alongside the likes of Nancy MacBeth and Pam Barrett – talented female political leaders from Alberta who thanks to errors, bad luck and old-fashioned prejudice against women in politics were unable to lead their parties where they hoped to take them.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.