Last night, I ventured into the world of right-wing partisan politics in Alberta and attended the Wildrose Alliance leadership forum. As someone who doesn’t share this party’s politics, and would have a very difficult time voting for its candidates in an election, I have found myself surprisingly curious about that party’s potential.
Around 180 people were in attendance, and like most political party events, the majority of them appeared to be in the +60 grey-haired category. In the crowd, I noticed former Edmonton-Sherwood Park Conservative MP Ken Epp and former Alberta Greens leader Joe Anglin. I spoke with Anglin before he left the forum and he told me that while he wasn’t going to join the Wildrose Alliance, as he felt they were too socially conservative for him, he continues to be open to work with all the parties. Anglin is gearing up for a fall fight against Bill 50, which is the sister of Bill 19 that passed earlier this year. Anglin’s Lavesta Area Group of landowners are the most recent group to reach out to voters before the September 14 by-election in Calgary-Glenmore.
At some points during the forum I felt like I had walked into a Conservative Party of Canada rally. Mark Dyrholm took a stance that he would cut political party funding for the Bloc Quebecois, and both he and Jeff Willerton took regular shots at Pierre Trudeau, the NEP, Liberal Peter Lougheed, Liberal Don Getty, and the “Ed Stelmach Progressives.“
A strong pro-life social conservative and former PC organizer, Dyrholm strikes me as the kind of person who would excel as an organizer for the right-wing party, but as leader would not increase its appeal much beyond its already loyal base. He was well-spoken, but offered little beyond the expected Liberal-baiting and attacks on the Human Rights Commission and court challenges program. While it is difficult to tell how much support each of the candidates has among the party faithful, Dyrholm’s preaching spoke directly to the base of the now defunct Reform Party.
Jeff Willerton was easily the most entertaining and off the map of the three candidates. Describing “the slimy Liberal tentacles” of “the rotten octopus of the Liberal Party of Canada,” Willerton took the position that if elected Premier he would hold a province-wide referendum on separation within six months of each time the Liberals form government in Ottawa. He was adamant that he wasn’t a separatist, but was convinced that this would send a message to the Liberals (I’m still unclear on what kind of message that would be).
Danielle Smith largely steered clear of the expected right-wing sophism, and offered a more nuanced and articulate vision of where she would lead the Wildrose Alliance. While she appears to have mastered the art of talking points, she spoke passionately of building a big tent conservative party, the need to look beyond out borders to fix the problems with health care and poverty, and her values as a libertarian and fiscal conservative. Not surprisingly, Smith was recently endorsed by her ideological companion Ezra Levant. She has received a lot of media attention since entering the contest, but I wonder if her message is connecting with the Wildrose Alliance base.
It will depend on the results of the leadership contest on October 17, but I believe that as the leader of the Wildrose Alliance, Danielle Smith could be a game changer in Alberta politics. For over 20 years, electoral politics in Alberta has been stuck in a rut where the Liberal and NDP opposition have focused their resources on 15 to 20 ridings and have left the PCs uncontested in 40 to 60 ridings, ensuring majority governments and mediocre governance. I find it highly unlikely that the Wildrose Alliance under any leader would form government in 2012, but if a young, savvy, articulate, and well-spoken leader like Smith can succeed in moderating the traditional social conservatism of that party’s members, she could turn the electoral map on its head by dislodging the democratically unhealthy logjam with which Albertans have become apathetically accustomed.