I’ll start with a bold prediction that might eventually make me look like a fool: Danielle Smith is the greatest threat to the Tory dynasty in Alberta since Laurence Decore.
This is high praise for someone who has yet to win a seat in the legislature, or her party’s leadership, and only publicly launched her leadership campaign four days ago for a party that currently does not have a single seat in the legislature. Furthermore, many people have looked foolish betting against the Tories and the current Premier. Nonetheless, I believe she has the most potential to shake up the political landscape of anyone who has come along in the past 15 years.
Reading her speech to the WRAP convention from this weekend, I can’t help but be impressed. I don’t agree with her vision, but I’ll grant that it’s a heck of a speech. She articulates a clear message about business and fiscal responsibility in this province, and where the current government has erred. She makes an emotional connection to the audience, first by relating her family’s experiences from the recession of the 1980s, then by explaining her involvement with the PC Party and why she left. Finally, the requisite Trudeau dig aside, she gives a speech that avoids demagoguery, ad hominem attacks, and instead relies on a well-constructed argument that she backs up with facts and figures.
Following the 2008 election, there was much ado about problems on the left – vote-splitting, issues with the Liberal brand, and so forth. There is much talk about – through merger, rebranding, or creating a new party – some action to consolidate centre-left voters and disaffected Tories. After more than a year, there is no public evidence that such outcome is any closer to reality. The left remains divided, lacking an idea, institution, or person it can rally around, and disaffected Tories are left searching for the lesser of the evils and hoping for something better.
However, flying under the radar were issues that might lead to a surge of support for a centre-right, fiscally conservative party: the high spending, and sudden reappearance of a deficit in the provincial budget; controversy surrounding the new royalties regime; the appearance that the government lacks big ideas. All three of these topics are covered in Smith’s speech.
While the 2008 election saw the WRAP lose their only seat, they have nonetheless seen an uptake in donations, largely from businesses disenchanted with the government. Their conservative credentials are unquestioned, and they could take advantage of a potential rift between the Tories and their federal counterparts. Most importantly, if they choose a fresh, young leader like Smith, they can make the Tories suddenly seem old and stale. She can generate excitement and interest in a province where it’s sorely lacking. It’s tough to predict the future, but the Tories would seem to be a lock to win the 2012 election. Beyond that, if the Alliance gains a beachhead in that race, they could grow fast.
The last transfer of power between parties – the 1971 defeat of the Social Credit Party at the hands of the Progressive Conservatives – was less about ideology, and more about image. There was little that separated the two parties policy-wise. But Peter Lougheed and his team were new, fresh, and energetic. The SoCreds were a tired government, and failed to bring forward new ideas and new personalities. The same opportunity exists for the Alliance here. Most of the new faces in the Tory government are still buried in junior cabinet posts or the backbenches. More and more voters see them as lacking ideas. Can a new, fresh face bring about the downfall of the mighty Tory dynasty? It might take her 2-3 elections, but I’d bet on Danielle Smith before I bet on any of the other alternatives.