It is bizarre that Ms. Smith, who believed she was on the verge of becoming Premier of Alberta before April 23, had not met the Mayor of Alberta’s capital city until today. Knowing how many events Mayor Mandel attends on a weekly basis it is surprising to me that the two have not coincidentally (or even purposely) bumped into each other at a reception or fundraiser. Perhaps this suggests where Edmonton fit in the Wildrose Party’s grand strategy to form government on April 23, 2012.
In the three years since she was selected as leader of the Wildrose Alliance, Ms. Smith has attempted, very publicly, to turn decisions made by Edmonton City Council into wedge issues in northern Alberta.
The most notable attempt was in 2010, when the Wildrose Party leader denounced the decision by City Councillors to implement a phased closure of the City Centre Airport, and used the conclusion of the long-standing and painful civic to wedge away traditional Tory support in northern communities concerned about what effects the closure could have on medivac and charter flight services.
While campaigning for the cancelation of the phased closure plans, Ms. Smith and her party started what became a personal battle against Mayor Mandel, who supported the phased closure. Despite the Wildrose Party’s incursion into municipal affairs, Mayor Mandel was re-elected with 55% of the vote.
Over the course of the next two years, and the 2012 election campaign, Ms. Smith’s party made issue of the provincial funding for a new Royal Alberta Museum and the renovation of the too-long abandoned Federal Building in Edmonton’s downtown.
These wedge issue did not translate into seats in northern Alberta on election day. The party’s candidates were competitive in many constituencies north of Edmonton, but only Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills candidate Shayne Saskiw was successful and the party’s only incumbent in the north, Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier, was defeated.
The Wildrose Party was also strongly rebuked in Edmonton, where in total votes it placed behind both the Progressive Conservatives and the New Democrats. Following controversial comments made on a blog by Edmonton Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger, Mayor Mandel cautiously waded into the election campaign. Voters in only one urban Edmonton-area constituency gave the party more than 30% support (in Sherwood Park).
Newly elected Cardston-Taber-Warner Wildrose MLA Gary Bikman believes his party’s drubbing in Edmonton was a result of rural voters “possessing more common sense” than the city dwellers, suggesting that Ms. Smith’s party may still have to undergo a significant psychological transformation before it will appeal to those nonsensical city voters.
The Edmonton’s Advantage
Simple geopolitics gives the two other opposition parties an advantage over the new Wildrose Official Opposition in the capital city. The leaders of of the two other opposition parties actually live there. The four MLA NDP caucus, led by Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood MLA Brian Mason, is entirely based in Edmonton and the former official opposition Liberal Party, led by Edmonton-Meadowlark MLA Raj Sherman, holds two seats in the capital city.
Even as a Calgary-based politician, PC Premier Alison Redford appointed some powerful Edmonton representatives at the cabinet table, including Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, Health Minister Fred Horne, Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk, and PC caucus whip Steven Young. Just outside the city limits, Advanced Education Minister Stephen Khan, Education Minister Jeff Johnson, and Finance Minister Doug Horner represent constituencies in the Capital Region.
Despite Ms. Smith’s electoral posturing against the Mayor and City Council, and her party’s contingent of MLA’s hailing mostly from rural southern constituencies, Edmonton’s municipal officials will benefit from cultivating working relationships with the new Official Opposition. There will undoubtably be times over the next four years when the Mayor and City Council do not see eye to eye with the Government and that is when a healthy relationship with the bodies occupying the Official Opposition benches will be of benefit to Edmontonians.
With Ms. Smith’s party shut out of Edmonton, the city’s elected representatives do not owe anything to the Wildrose MLA’s, meaning that the Mayor and City Council can build relationships in their own time and on their own terms.