State of Alberta: At a Crossroads

Let’s dispense with the drama of this coming weekend. Premier Ed Stelmach will almost certainly survive the leadership review at his party’s convention. I’m guessing he’ll earn 75-85% support, and that’s the last we’ll hear for about leadership challenges for a while. For the reasons why, I will point you to Duncan’s blog. He does a much better job than I can of explaining what will likely happen (and why) this weekend.

There is, however, one factor Duncan didn’t cover that I feel will help the Premier this weekend – there’s no obvious successor in the party. The Premier would find himself in a more difficult predicament if the party had someone else to turn to. In this case, the options are Ted Morton (does he appeal to moderates?), Dave Hancock (does he appeal to conservatives, and to anyone outside of Edmonton?), Brett Wilson (is he serious, and is he electable?) and, beyond that, well, it’s a tough question. Within Cabinet, there don’t appear to be many options that scream “leadership material”.

Successful governments tend to have strong ministers surrounding the first minister, many of whom seem capable of taking over the reins some day. In the early years of the Tory dynasty, Lougheed surrounded himself in Cabinet with what was seen as many of Alberta’s best and brightest. In the Klein cabinet, there were always Ministers seen as potential successors. Some of them were felled (Mar) or damaged (Norris, Oberg) by the time the race to replace him actually happened, though it didn’t stop the latter two from running. In Premier Stelmach’s cabinet, the strong ministers seem to be missing. Maybe they’ll develop over time – first-term MLA and Minister of Justice Alison Redford is highly regarded, and Parliamentary Assistants such as Doug Griffiths, Janice Sarich, Diana McQueen, and Raj Sherman have the pedigree for leading cabinet positions. But at this moment in time, there is a lack of depth at the top ranks of the party in terms of potential leaders.

So where does that leave the Tories? They’ll get through this weekend without any maor infighting. But they’re immediately faced with continuing public frustration over their handling of the H1N1 vaccine rollout, and with, for the moment, a surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance Party. Factor in that the Alliance surge seems to be coming mostly at the expense of the Tories, and there is cause for concern.

It’s too early to tell if support for the Alliance is firm, but I think we can say that, for the time being, the Tories’ free ride is over. They have a party that appears willing and quite possibly able to challenge them. Recently, I outlined what I think the Alliance needs to do to cement their support, and how the centre-left can make a stronger push for government. Both of those scenarios depend on the Tories continuing to lose touch with voters, opening up space for a challenger (or two) to move in and occupy on the political spectrum. Governments, it is said, tend to defeat themselves. This normally happens through scandal, atrophy (and losing touch with voters), or a lack of ideas. The Tories seem okay on the first one, veering towards potential problems with the second, and in trouble on the third.

Another challenge they face is one faced by all parties in power – particularly those who have been in power for a long period of time – is that it’s tough to gauge how committed their supporters are. Certainly, there are lots of committed Tories in Alberta, but it’s likely that a good number of supporters were attracted to the party and stuck with them because, to put it bluntly, it’s better to be on the winning side (the Liberal Party of Canada is faced with this problem as well). If the Alliance continues to poll well, and to look like a real alternative, that will test the level of support from more conservative Tories. If the centre-left picks up steam, that will test the commitment of more moderate supporters, particularly those in more urban ridings. Can the Tories continue to hold the middle, or will they be pulled in one direction or another? More importantly, how long will voters continue to give them a chance? I suspect that much of the support you see for the Alliance in polls at this moment is an expression of frustration with the status quo (be it the governing party itself, or the overall political climate). The Tories can probably win most of these voters back, but the longer they wait, and the more comfortable voters get with the idea of supporting someone else, the more challenging it will be to win them back. There will be a point of no return when a given voter decides they’ve had enough, and will either stay home or vote for someone else. When that happens, only something dramatic (think trading in Getty for Klein) can swing them back. I don’t think most voters have reached that point, but they’re getting closer every week.

So that’s where I see Alberta politics at this moment. We’re at a crossroads. In the coming months, and couple of years before the next general election, something will give. Maybe the Alliance will fizzle, or maybe it will continue to establish support. Maybe the centre-left will regroup and start to build momentum, or maybe it will continue to in-fight, eat its own, and further splinter. Or maybe Paul Wells’ first rule of politics will hold, and the status quo will assert itself. I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return where the status quo will crumble. It will depend on a number of factors – some out of our control (oil and gas revenues), some within our control (do progressives or conservatives put forward the stronger vision for Alberta?) In any case, I think we’re heading for a realignment of some sorts in Alberta over the coming two elections, and 5-10 year time frame.

Worth Reading on This Topic:
Daveberta: Stelmach Tories Diving; What’s Going to Happen at the PC Leadership Review?
Chris LaBossiere: Running up the Middle…to the Right of Centre
Ken Chapman: Is Alberta About to Enter an Empire of Illusion Stage Politically?

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State of Alberta: Wildrose Blooms

This is part one of a three part series on the state of politics in Alberta I’m running this week.

Danielle Smith was elected leader
of the Wildrose Alliance Party on Saturday. Earning over 75% of the roughly 8300 votes cast, Smith takes over the fledgling party with a strong mandate.

Smith and her party have been on the receiving end of a lot of publicity, mostly positive, since their surprise win in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election last month. In polls released over the past few weeks, the party finds itself second only to the governing Tories, having lapped the Liberals and NDP before electing a leader or putting forward policies.

Danielle Smith

Four months ago, Danielle Smith first caught my attention, after she delivered what I thought was a very savvy speech at her party’s AGM. She subsequently performed well throughout the campaign, and at the one forum I took in.

Things are going pretty well for Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance right now, but they could also quickly go off the rails. Here are some key issues and questions I see that need to be addressed between now and the next election.

Will Danielle Smith Try to Get Into the Legislature Before the Next General Election?
The next general election is likely to be held in 2012, and will be held no later than the spring of 2013, 3 1/2 years from now. That’s a long time for a party leader to be out of the legislature, and it will be a challenge for Smith to stay prominent in the public eye until then.

With only one MLA, who was only elected a month ago, the chances of Smith running for a seat appear to be in the hands of MLAs from other parties. She would likely run for any opening in Calgary, but will she run outside of her home city if the opportunity presents herself? I see the argument for her trying to win a seat, but I also see an argument for her spending her time criss-crossing Alberta while selling her party’s message, and focusing efforts on the questions that follow.

Can Smith Surround Herself With Talented Candidates?

The party can’t succeed if it’s perceived as a one woman show. It’s imperative that Smith surround herself with capable candidates.

A cautionary tale can be found in the story of Mario Dumont. Dumont, leader of the right-wing Action Democratique du Quebec (ADQ), came within a whisker of forming government in Quebec in 2007, instead forming the official opposition in Quebec’s first ever minority government situation. It was assumed by many that he was the Premier in waiting. Instead, 18 months later his party was decimated, returning to third place status, and 2 1/2 years later, he is out of politics and hosting a talk show.

Of the many problems that plagued Dumont, one was the perceived lack of quality MNAs and candidates surrounding him. Smith could fall prey to the same problem if she can’t attract strong candidates. Smith’s team could in large part make or break her attempt to challenge the Tories.

Can They Build an Organization in Time to Compete?

Smith and other WAP boosters have talked about challenging for government in 2012.

As of right now, they have constituency associations in about half of the ridings throughout the province. I imagine many of those are rumps. It’s going to be a significant challenge for the party to build strong constituency associations across the province in a matter of a couple of years. This might be worth watching as a sign of party strength. If we see a grassroots effort from people setting up and participating in constituency associations, it’s a sign that support for the party is real, not just a passing fad.

What Do They Stand For?
The million dollar question for a party with limited policy currently on the books. Smith’s overwhelming win gives her the mandate to pursue a big-tent conservative agenda. Had social conservative Mark Dyrholm done better, there would be more pressure on her to give social conservatism a prominent role. In any case, I see both sides as needing the support of the others – Smith needs them as part of her big tent, and social conservatives probably still see the party as the best avenue for their issues. What will Smith be willing to give them, and what do they want to stay in the tent?

As for other policies, Smith’s campaign website might provide some insight.

The Road to 44?
If the party is serious about forming government, where do they find the support to do so? Are there enough disenchanted Tories (or even Liberals, New Democrats, or Greens) willing to come over? How much appeal do they have for the 60% of voters who stayed home.

A Mile Wide and an Inch Deep?

I feel like Alberta politics is in flux right now. I’m not convinced the support for any party is firm, especially the Wildrose Alliance. I do think they are well-poised to firm up and continue to attract support in the coming months, but their success will depend in large part on how they respond to the questions listed above. It will also depend on the actions of the other parties, but those are topics for another day.

Related:
Daveberta: A Wake Up Call For Alberta’s Political Establisment
Ken Chapman: Smith Wins Wildrose Leadership: Now What?

Quick Hit: Are MLAs Wild About Danielle Smith?

This could be nothing more than a rumour, this could be a moot point if Wildrose Alliance Party members endorse Mark Dyrholm for leader, or this could be the story of the year in Alberta politics.

The Edmonton Journal’s Capital Notebook relays this tidbit from government insider Paul McLaughlin, publisher of the newsletter Alberta Scan. According to Capital Notebook, McLaughlin, relying on credible sources, is reporting that as many as 10 Tory MLAs could cross the floor and sit as Wildrose Alliance members if Danielle Smith is elected leader. (h/t to Jenn Prosser for posting this story).

Is there any truth behind this? It’s impossible to say at this point, but let’s consider a couple of things. First, the recent by-election in Calgary-Glenmore could have many MLAs worried about their future come general election time. Second, the Stelmach government hasn’t been very tolerant of dissent from within (here’s a recent example of an MLA paying for speaking out in public). You would think the last thing an MLA would want is to be caught thinking about crossing the floor if he wasn’t serious about it. Would this be idle speculation then? I tend to think not.

If this does happen, the ramifications could be huge. First, if all ten cross the floor, that would make the Wildrose Alliance the second largest caucus in the legislature, and the official opposition. It would guarantee them official party status, giving them greater resources to support their MLAs. Second, heading into the PC Party convention in November, this would be a huge, possibly fatal blow to the leadership of Premier Stelmach. At the very least, it could plunge the party into a divisive fight over his leadership and the future direction of the party.

It’s also worth noting that if this happens, a lot of the impact depends on which MLAs cross the floor. A cabinet minister or high-profile MLA would create a much bigger stir than a relatively unknown first-term backbencher. Whether the MLAs were all on the far right of the PC Party or if some were moderates would also affect perception. How and when floor-crossing would occur also matters. A group splintering at once would create a news story. If they begin to trickle out after the PC convention, it’s still news, but the impact might be dulled.

In any case, this is something worth keeping an eye on. It might be nothing, or if it’s Danielle Smith giving a victory speech in three weeks time, it might be the start of a big story.

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.