By Jody MacPherson
The commute to Okotoks from Calgary is a scenic drive southwest with truly spectacular mountain views on a clear day. Having travelled the route almost daily for about 15 years, I saw something this week I’ve never seen before.
Beginning at the turnoff to Dunbow Road on Highway 2, there is a series of election signs for a party other than the Progressive Conservatives (PC’s). The Wildrose Party’s Danielle Smith has a half dozen or more signs at regular intervals all the way into Okotoks. Not one PC sign could be found along the same stretch of road. The first sign of Smith’s PC rival, John Barlow, isn’t visible until just outside the town boundaries.
Okotoks is adjacent to the famous Okotoks erratic, the largest of its kind in the world. It’s a town where political sensibilities shift as slowly as this “big rock,” left behind as the glaciers retreated 10,000 years ago.
Don’t let the town’s sleepy, peaceful appearance fool you, though. There’s an epic battle being waged in the community on several fronts. The traditional power base in the town has been frustrated in its attempts to overturn the sustainable Okotoks model in favour of expanding residential development. They want to build a water pipeline to the community from Calgary to fuel growth in a town that has literally “tapped out” its water supply.
Bullying hits home
In the surrounding Municipal District of Foothills, it’s a different story. The MD politicians have been a burr in the sides of the provincial government for several years now, resisting attempts at regionalization. Their motives are less about protecting the environment and more about preserving the rights of their constituents to control their land. Land use planning is the enemy in these parts.
Promises to property owners
It’s not surprising Alison Redford kicked off the race with an olive branch at her fundraiser in High River last week. She assured cantankerous landowners she was sympathetic to their concerns about property rights and about the voting structure of the Calgary Regional Partnership (CRP). The governance model gives Calgary a veto over rural planning decisions and Redford surprised everyone by promising to get rid of the veto. But, as the U2 song lyric says, “she’s the promise, in the year of election.”
The ground game
Okotoks is the largest town in the large, mostly rural riding of Highwood. Driving around, viewing the lawn signs, it looks as though Smith’s campaign has not yet penetrated these neighbourhoods. After the first week of the campaign, Barlow’s lawn signs seem to slightly outnumber Smith’s in most areas of town. In such a conservative stronghold, with an unprecedented battle unfolding, it’s surprising there are not more signs.
Media on side
Barlow is a likeable candidate, strongly backed by business interests and younger families who can identify with his balance of community-mindedness and conservative sensibilities. He’s the comfortable choice. He’s also the associate publisher of the Western Wheel newspaper and showed questionable judgment by not stepping down from his duties immediately after being nominated as the PC candidate. He continued at the newspaper while also campaigning, not stepping down until after the writ was dropped. It’s worth noting that his backers are some of the same people who are calling for a water pipeline.
When the National Post came to town to do a story on Highwood, they reported their conversation with former pharmacist Allen King, who they described as “tidying up” around Barlow’s office. They likely didn’t realize they had stumbled on one of the town’s biggest power brokers. King is an unapologetic, anti-sustainability, conservative columnist for the Wheel and true blue Tory royalty.
Also on the ballot
Let’s be up front here. I’m a liberal, but I’ll admit Highwood shows no signs of electing a centre-left candidate any time soon. The PC’s captured 65 per cent of the popular vote in 2008. So, I’m not going to spend time on the other candidates. This is a showdown between Smith and Barlow.
Showdown at the OK-otoks corral
At first blush, Barlow might seem outgunned by the savvy, sophisticated Smith. A master politician, she’s demonstrated how to win votes, even when in unfamiliar territory and in a riding that doesn’t always welcome newcomers. This is Barlow’s first real foray into politics, but I’m not prepared to underestimate the Tory dynasty yet. They are likely putting significant effort into this race and Smith has to cover an entire province, by comparison.
The riding was also one of redrawn to give it more of a “rurban” flavour. Rural residents are likely favouring the Wildrose, but their influence may have been neutralized somewhat by the boundary changes. I’d wager the Wildrose is strong in High River as well.
Shades of the republic
Some of the more progressive voters might fear Smith’s right wing views and decide to vote for Barlow to try and keep her from winning. The worst possible outcome for Barlow is a low voter turnout. If disaffected PCs decide to stay home, rather than defend their party against the Wildrose onslaught, Smith will easily win. Given the dismal performance of the Tories thus far in the election, this seems like a serious concern for Barlow. He’s fighting an uphill battle with Smith’s political skill and Redford’s inability to control her wayward party.
Okotoks will no doubt be the main battleground. A debate organized by the chamber of commerce and scheduled for April 10 will be standing room only. Smith and Barlow will go head to head.
As I left town, I noticed yet another large billboard of Smith’s smiling face adorning a property south on Highway 2. Next to her sign, on the same property owner’s fence is a sign that reads, “Vote Ron Paul.” At this intersection, I turned left and drove back to Calgary.
Jody MacPherson raised a family in Okotoks, where she has extended family and many valued friends. She has since moved into Calgary and has been active in the Alberta Liberal Party for several years. Coincidentally, she now lives in Calgary-Elbow, Alison Redford’s home riding.