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.

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


Calgary Goes Wild(rose)

I predicted a Tory romp in today’s Calgary-Glenmore by-election. I was very wrong.

We can call this race for the Wildrose Alliance Party.

Your Choice For Change

As I write this, 58 of 66 polls are in. Paul Hinman of the Wildrose Alliance Party holds the lead with 37% of the vote. Avalon Roberts of the Liberals is in second place with 34%, and Diane Colley-Urquhart, the Tory candidate, is in 3rd with 25% of the vote. The vote share of those three candidates hasn’t budged more than a percent or two either way for most of the night.

By-elections are, at best, a snapshot of the voters’ mood at a given time. They aren’t predictors of how the electorate will vote in a general election – when more voters are tuned in and will turn out to vote.

Still, this is bad for the Tories. The Wildrose Alliance ran with the slogan “Send Ed A Message”, and voters seem to have responded. The voter turnout will be in the mid 30s, below the 45% achieved in the 2008 general election. In that election, the Tories ran veteran MLA and Minister of Justice Ron Stevens, who earned 50% of the vote. The second place finisher, Avalon Roberts of the Liberals, earned 33% – right about where she is in the polls right now. The Wildrose Alliance earned 8% of the vote. They’ve gained about 30% tonight, while Tory support is down 25%, or half their vote share. For reference, the 2007 Calgary-Elbow by-election saw a vote shift of +9 for the Liberals, and -13 for the Tories.

What hurts is that the Tories weren’t putting forward a run of the mill candidate. Diane Colley-Urquhart, a 9-year veteran of Calgary City Council, carried the banner for them this election. The Alliance candidate, Paul Hinman, had some profile, having served as MLA for Cardston-Taber-Warner from 2004-2008, and as Alberta Alliance/Wildrose Alliance party leader for that same time. Yet, he had no roots in the riding. The vote is a rebuke to the Tories, there’s no way around it.

We are likely 2 1/2 years away from the next general election, but the signal that Calgarians will stay home or vote for another party is strong and clear. With the right leader and message, they might be willing to take the leap in a general election, when the stakes are higher.

This result is also potentially good news for the Wildrose Alliance. Having elected an MLA through a by-election, they are in a stronger position to argue for a spot in the leadership debate come general election time.

This could be the first sign of a shift in Alberta politics, or it could be a historical footnote, like the by-elections in Olds-Didsbury in 1982, or in Calgary-Elbow in 2007. In any case, politics in Alberta is suddenly more interesting than it was when we woke up this morning. It’s also likely a more competitive political realm, which is a positive thing regardless of your beliefs.

Note: I’ll add more over the next day or so.

Update: Some Tuesday morning thoughts.
– In the original post, I projected turnout in the mid-30s. It ended up being 40.5%, not far off the turnouts from 2004 and 2008 (48% and 45%, respectively).
– There is good coverage of the by-election and its potential ramifications all over the web. I recommend checking out what Chris LaBossiere, Ken Chapman, Trish Audette, Calgary Grit, and Graham Thompson have to say about it. Tuesday afternoon update: Daveberta weighs in too.

In addition to the benefits to the WRA mentioned earlier, winning an urban riding such as Calgary-Glenmore is a huge boost to the party as well. Having won in Calgary now in addition to previously winning (and coming a close second) in a rural riding makes it harder for critics to portray the party as outside the mainstream. If you look at the demographics of Glenmore, it looks fairly close to those of Alberta (perhaps only its higher proportion of immigrants would be different), leading to a good argument that it can be considered, in general, a bellwether riding.

Finally, we should remember the psychological boost this gives to the Alliance heading into their leadership race. Having won a by-electio, they can demonstrate a payoff to both volunteers and donors, which will help them earn a continuing commitment from both groups.

Most of the talk about the by-election has focused on how its bad for the Tories. It’s also bad for the Liberals. Their vote share, dropped slightly from 2008, which dropped slightly from 2004. In effect, they’re stuck in neutral in this riding. They’ve fielded the same candidate three times in a row now, and in the most recent one the party was led by a Calgarian. This hasn’t made an impact at all. If the party wants to move beyond the status of token opposition, and be a credible challenge to the government, they have to be able to win ridings like this one.

Beyond the Liberal Party, this result is bad for all left-centre/progressive minded people. An upstart, leaderless right of centre party just won a seat, boosting their vote share by 30% over the general election in Calgary-Glenmore. Since the 2008 election, people on the left have spent a lot of time navel gazing about mergers, co-operation, as well as party name changes and forming new parties. Nothing has come out of this so far, save for the Democratic Renewal Project, which was overwhelmingly rejected at this past weekend’s NDP convention.

With a fresh threat attacking the Tories from the right, the Liberals, NDP, and all progressive/left-centre voices need to get their act in order quickly or risk being drowned out of the public debate. If there’s a lesson to be learned from the Wildrose Alliance victory, it’s that campaigning hard and finding a message that appeals to voters is more important than cosmetic things like party names.