It would be premature and dangerous to write off the Wildrose Alliance as a political phenomenon in Alberta, but a strong case can be made that support for the far-right political party led by former Calgary journalist and Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith has passed its historic peak.
If this is correct, it’s all downhill for the Wildrose Alliance from here. The only question remaining will be, “How far downhill?” In other words, by how much will Wildrose support have dwindled by the time it’s election day in Alberta?
It has been argued in the blogosphere for some time now that Wildrose supporters, mostly disaffected Alberta Progressive Conservatives of one sort or another, have been streaming back to Tories ever since Premier Ed Stelmach announced he was stepping aside as leader.
Now that situation is becoming obvious to everyone else, with an ugly set-to within Wildrose ranks over who’s in charge finding its way into the pages of the Calgary Herald on Canada Day, less than a week after the party’s much ballyhooed annual convention in Cowtown.
According to the Herald, not only are voters who flirted with the idea of voting Wildrose streaming for the exits, so are many party officials and staff members. “The Wildrose,” wrote the Herald’s reporter, “appears to be bleeding some political and financial support back to the ruling Tories.”
What’s more, accusations from disillusioned Wildrosers are flying, saying Ms. Smith – who hitherto has been successfully portrayed to the public as someone who can charm the skin off a snake, and is a political genius to boot – is an autocrat and a bully “who acts like a Third World dictator.”
Like rank-and-file right-of-centre voters, the Herald reported, even Wildrose officials and activists are finding a warm welcome back in that famously big Alberta Conservative tent. This is especially true right now with six leadership candidates, two fairly described as being on the extreme right, looking for volunteers and donors.
The Herald’s reporter even found a Wildroser who was prepared to say aloud what bloggers un-wowed by the Wildrose phenomenon have been arguing for some time now, to wit, “the Wildrose was a protest against Eddie…”
Now, in fairness to Ms. Smith, who is in fact a charming person capable of making extremist ideas seem non-threatening, the Alliance has always been an unlikely coalition that must have been a challenge to keep singing from the same hymnbook, let alone singing the same hymn.
Key components of its membership include the perpetually disgruntled Alberta social conservative super-right, rank and file Alberta Conservatives who for one reason or another didn’t approve of Premier Ed Stelmach, a subset of the Calgary oil industry that wanted to punish Mr. Stelmach for daring to contemplate higher royalty rates, and economic market fundamentalists not particularly interested in social conservative issues.
Ms. Smith herself fell into the latter category and, sooner or later, that was bound to cause trouble with the party’s social conservatives.
The problem now – and no doubt what is really creating the suddenly public rift within Wildrose ranks – is the fact that that with Mr. Stelmach as good as gone, it makes more sense for all but the social conservatives to get back under the Tory canvas as quickly as possible.
Ex-Tories unhappy with Mr. Stelmach, of course, have already achieved their principal objective by supporting another party. The oil industry too has accomplished its main goal – and needs to be back on the inside to prevent the next premier from getting uppity ideas about royalties that might be popular with the public. The market fundamentalists, it could be argued, also have the need not to be shut out of the policy debate within the still-dominant Conservative Party.
For their part, many voters who were attracted by the Wildrose image portrayed in the media are starting to worry about what really drives a party that would pass resolutions at its convention encouraging private hospitals and shutting down the Human Rights Commission.
This is not to say that the Wildrose Alliance will fall apart overnight, even if it falls apart eventually. Enough people have invested enough in the party to make them desperate to keep it viable. Consider, for example, ambitious politicians like Airdrie-Chestermere MLA Rob Anderson, a defector from Tory ranks who has staked his political career on the party’s success. These are the people whose supporters will unleash a chorus of angry Tweets – squeals, more like – seeking to deny the premise of this post.
It’s also possible the Tories could elect a leader so moderate or inept that he or she turns off supporters just as Mr. Stelmach did – although this seems highly improbable.
For its part, the Conservative Party has many of these same elements within its ranks, but it has the history, the mechanisms and the bench strength to deal with them. What’s more, dealing with them is easier for the Tories now that their most extreme members have conveniently defected to the Wildrose Alliance.
The harsh reality, from the Wildrose perspective, is that the Conservatives effectively defused the threat the Alliance posed the day Mr. Stelmach announced he was stepping down.
Wildrose leaders respond by arguing that once the Conservative leadership contest is over – and, presumably, a premier not sufficiently hard-line has been selected – support will flow back to the Alliance like an incoming tide. They point to their party’s 24,000 or so members as evidence of enduring support.
But really, what else can they say? Membership numbers aren’t very meaningful in Alberta, where it’s considered normal behaviour to be a member of several parties at the same time. Centre-right voters who get fed up with the Wildrose Alliance are less likely to resign from the party than simply to stop thinking about it, and then not bother to renew their memberships.
The softness of Conservative support alleged by Alliance activists is unlikely to be tested in a meaningful way until a Tory leader is selected. But here’s a wager that lack of enthusiasm about the new Tory leader will turn out to be a significantly less influential factor than the Wildrose Alliance would like to believe, no matter whom the Tories choose.
For more than a year, the smart money in Alberta has been on the Alliance forming the Opposition in the next general election. This could well still happen, and if the vote were held tomorrow, it almost certainly would.
But by the time Alberta gets around to voting – and that won’t be until after the new Conservative leader is chosen in the fall – it could all be over but the head-scratching at what we were so excited about back in 2010 and 2011.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.