April 23, 2012

Alberta election: Who are the Wildrose?

The Wildrose campaign bus

Toronto Star
APRIL 18, 2012

For Alberta, the revolution is finally coming home.

Unless something dramatic happens soon, polls indicate that Danielle Smith’s upstart Wildrose Party is poised to win Monday’s Alberta election.

Such a win — or even a narrow Wildrose loss — would be a telling victory for a hard-right movement that years ago surged out of Alberta to win the country but that could never quite capture the province of its birth.

Many Canadians might be surprised to learn that Alberta’s current Progressive Conservative government is not already hard-right.

But the Alberta Tories have always been a coalition, one that includes city dwellers and ranchers, small-l liberals and social conservatives.

The Tories succeeded in holding that coalition together for 41 years by managing to straddle the three main forces that drive Alberta politics: populism, urbanism (most Albertans live in just two cities) and oil.

Premiers ran the gamut, from suave establishment lawyer Peter Lougheed, who established the Tory dynasty in 1971, to rumpled radio journalist Ralph Klein.

Yet both Lougheed and Klein had the knack of navigating their way through the maze that was their party. Lougheed insisted on extracting higher royalties from the oil companies. But he was also the oil patch’s unremitting champion, particularly in its wars with Ottawa.

Similarly, Klein made much noise about privatizing all or some of medicare. But faced with opposition from within his own party, he eventually backed down.

Meanwhile, out on the edges, real conservatives were gnashing their teeth.

Some of these real conservatives gravitated to Preston Manning’s Reform Party, a quasi-populist movement that eventually morphed into the Stephen Harper Conservatives.

But the deal that Manning made with Alberta Tories early on was that his new party would stay out of provincial politics.

And for a long time, it did. For years, the only right-wing challenges to Alberta’s governing Tories came from Western separatists and assorted nuts.

Wildrose changed that.

Edmonton Journal reporter Karen Kleiss dates the real growth of Wildrose to a 2007 decision by then premier Ed Stelmach to review the royalties that oil producers pay the province.

The review was popular with voters. But the very idea of higher levies enraged oil companies, encouraging many to fund the upstart Wildrose.

Last year, Kleiss reports, Wildrose pulled in $2.7 million in contributions, almost as much as the governing Tories.

Certainly, there is little doubt about where federal Conservatives stand in this battle. Harper says his MPs can support either Premier Alison Redford’s Tories or Wildrose in Monday’s vote. But as Calgary MP Rob Anders told Ottawa’s Hill Times this week, most federal Alberta Conservatives are lining up solidly behind Smith and Wildrose.

Former Reform/Conservative strategist and long-time Harper ally Tom Flanagan is the Wildrose campaign director.

Like Harper, Smith is trying to downplay the more piquant elements within her party. She insists, for instance, that she won’t open the abortion debate.

She is, however, touting a form of two-tier medicare that would see some patients pay private clinics out-of-pocket fees in order to avoid surgical line-ups.

In another Harper-like move, Smith has had Wildrose candidates post good behaviour bonds, which are forfeit should they embarrass the party.

That hasn’t stopped embarrassments, including a blog (since removed) from one candidate that condemned gays to an eternity in hell-fire.

So far though, not even hell-fire has derailed Wildrose. The revolution continues.

Thomas Walkom’s column appears Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday.

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