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    September 2009
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Smith Shines: Wildrose Alliance Forum in Review

Last night, the Wildrose Alliance Party held a leadership forum in Edmonton. Being a follower of politics, and particularly interested in the candidacy of Danielle Smith, I had to check it out. You can see my photo gallery here, and read my thoughts below.

Listening to the Candidates

The forum was held at the Four Points Sheraton on Argyll Road, not the most central location, but a decent-sized venue for the crowd. To my surprise, the ballroom was pretty full, attracting around 175 people in my estimation. There was a decent mix of ages, thought it was skewed towards older demographics. I was told that many in the audience are veterans of the Reform/Canadian Alliance party, which wouldn’t be a surprise.

Three candidates are running for the leadership – Danielle Smith, who I have written about previously, the former columnist and Alberta director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business; Mark Dyrholm, a chiropractor and party activist, and Jeff Willerton, a self-published author and activist.

The candidates were each given 10-minute introductory speeches, then the moderator asked questions submitted in writing from the audience. The candidates closed with 5-10 minute statements.

Here are my impressions of the three candidates:

Jeff Willerton

Jeff Willerton is entertaining. I mean this both in the sense that he’s funny on the stump and in that made some outlandish statements and proposed some of the most off the wall ideas I’ve heard. Notably, he referred to the federal Liberals as a “rotten octopus” that wants to have their “sticky liberal tentacles in our pockets”. He then stated that if he were Premier, he would introduce a law that would require a vote on separation within 6 months of the election of a federal Liberal government. But don’t worry, he assured that he wasn’t a separatist. Rather, limited government is the objective, but he claims it’s not possible with the Liberal government. So to recap, we’d have a referendum on separation every time the federal Liberals won an election, but we don’t really want to separate. Got it? Let’s move on.

Mark Dyrholm

Mark Dyrholm definitely has a place in the Wildrose Alliance Party. But if it’s as leader, the party isn’t going anywhere. Dyrholm was short on what he supports, besides the standard Reform Party Democratic Reform package, and the abolishment of the Human Rights Commission (or at least Section 3), and the Court Challenges program. He did make thoughtful statements on the challenges of health care funding (pointing to cost containment as the end goal), and Carbon Capture and Storage, arguing that spending $2 billion on it while the government runs a deficit is irresponsible, and going as far as calling the whole project “junk science”.

That said, he’s not leadership material for a party that wants to contend for government. He’s too narrowly focused on the issues that defined the Reform Party movement, and won’t appeal to very many people outside the core Alliance base. He does have extensive experience as an organizer, serving as president of his Canadian Alliance riding association, on his provincial PC riding board, and having worked on 15 campaigns. He’d likely be an asset for the party as an organizer or in a leadership role in the party structure.

Danielle Smith
Danielle Smith was head and shoulders above her opponents. For one, she actually spent more time talking about policy and her values than bashing the Tories or federal Liberals. She identified key issues (health care, the environment – particularly how Alberta is perceived on the issue, and investor confidence). She sold her experience well, talking about past dealings with the media, and her conviction in her beliefs, and how they would be assets in an election campaign. While Willerton and Dyrholm spouted dated rhetoric about big bad Liberals, Smith focused on nuanced criticisms of government, and ideas about how to do better. She’s done her homework on issues such as health care – she used an analogy of charter schools to talk about how you could reform health care while respecting the Canadian Health Act and preserving the public element. There were moments when she pandered to the audience (talking about elected judges, and how the pro-life voice has been muted in the public debate, for example), but by and large she was thoughtful and articulate.

In her closing statement, Smith talked about values, echoing many of the themes in her speech to the WRA convention in June. It was an articulate message that connected with the audience – she received the biggest applause by far. She seemed to belong on a bigger stage than her competitors.

Danielle Smith

Will she win the leadership race? I have no idea. But I maintain she is the only one in the field who can take the Wildrose Alliance beyond the status of a fringe right-wing party. Unlike her opponents and many in the audience, she seems to be looking to the future, rather than living in a past of Liberal bogeyman and Reform patriots. Her challenge, if she wins the leadership, will be crafting a party that can appeal to a cross-section of Albertans. She’ll need good candidates around her, and a good team that can communicate a positive vision and message.

I agree with Dave that she could be a game-changer. In a debate with Messrs Stelmach, Swann, and Mason, she could very easily stand out. While I’m no supporter of her or her party, I do think that a competitive, Smith-led Alliance would be good for Alberta (I’ll reserve judgment on a Smith-led Alliance government). For that reason, I wish her well and I hope she is successful in her pursuit. Having smart, articulate, competent people seeking office and seriously debating issues is a good thing, regardless of whether they’re left, right, or centre.