Alberta Politics

meltdown in highwood: the floods are coming, but danielle smith will prevail

Highwood Election Forum
A big turnout at a recent election forum in Highwood.

By Jody MacPherson

Okotoks, the little town with the international reputation for award-winning environmental sustainability, could very well be home to the next premier of Alberta, a climate-change denier.

This is just one of many ironies of this 28th election in the province that birthed the oil/tarsands (depending on where you stand). It’s the first election in more than a decade where the Progressive Conservatives are actually in danger of a meltdown, not unlike the glaciers at the hands of our overheated climate.

Tempers flaring

It’s not only global temperatures that are rising though, the good citizens of Highwood are split and tempers are flaring. In 2008, only 36% of voters bothered to come out and vote and the PC candidate, George Groeneveld, received 65% of the popular vote. It wasn’t exactly a contested race. But, if the two election forums held in Highwood are any indication, the turnout will likely be a lot higher this time.

Keegan Gibson Liberal Highwood
Liberal candidate Keegan Gibson

The first debate was held in Okotoks with PC candidate John Barlow, Alberta Liberal candidate Keegan Gibson and Wildrose candidate, Danielle Smith. Things got off to a cordial start, but soon the accusations were flying. The “conscience rights” uproar had just erupted onto the social media scene.

Questions covered the full-range of issues from the incendiary (abortion) to the benign (whose signs were purchased locally). At the end of the evening, Smith’s closing remarks had a slightly more enthusiastic response from the crowd than Barlow’s. There was a lot of heckling and booing from both sides throughout.

An orange wave of PCs

High River hosted the second forum last week. Again, the NDP candidate was missing from the debate. Liberal Gibson was a little more prepared this time, having met with local politicians and community members. High River has an older and more rural demographic. It’s also the community where Smith chose to take up residence.  She’s still considered a newcomer rather than the hometown girl, though.

The PC’s packed the conference hall with supporters. One woman told me the seats were filled 45 minutes before the forum began. The PC’s had a highly visible presence with their bright orange t-shirts and it seemed like the Wildrose supporters were mostly left standing along the side or sprinkled throughout the audience.

Barlow was much more prepared this time and took Smith to task on a number of issues of local concern. Smith was thrown off a little by the hecklers and boos as she struggled to explain her party’s position on a number of issues. The social issues were not as much of a concern at this forum. It was all about education, water, property rights and healthcare.

The community is split

Danielle Smith Highwood
Danielle Smith

It was surprising to see how split the room was, as men in cowboy gear mumbled remarks under their breath, seniors argued with those sitting next to them, and neighbours shook their heads in exasperation. At the end, Barlow received more applause—but my guess is the crowd was mostly comprised of decided voters. The undecideds were in short supply, watchful and solemn.

Given that spring flooding season is looming, this issue was top of mind. Barlow was at a disadvantage, given that his predecessor, Groeneveld’s flood mitigation report was never released to the public. Smith was quick to promise to release the report and even suggested a role for Groeneveld in implementing the recommendations, which went over well. Barlow was left with no response except his own personal opinion that the report should be released, which received awkward applause.

Groeneveld was a well-liked MLA, snubbed by Stelmach and stripped of his cabinet position. The local PC association wrote a public letter of discontent at the time.

In an earlier post, I wrote that it appeared Barlow got off to a slow start with his signs.  According to later reports from Okotoks, he did manage to get some more signs out on lawns.

Green crowd will support Barlow

This riding is by no means an easy win for Smith. She is up against a well-organized, locally focused campaign by Barlow’s team. The Tory establishment backs Barlow and my guess is that fundraising would not have been a problem. The boundaries were adjusted in 2010, giving the two towns a little more sway over the results, which pose an interesting challenge for Smith. With the influx of environmentally conscious urbanites to Okotoks, Smith’s climate change position will hurt her with those voters.

The Tory faithful won’t be budged and Barlow is a fresh, young family man—just the face they need to represent their stuffy, cadre of aging, wealthy landowners looking forward to retirement. The property owners angry about the “bad bills” as Smith calls them, will decide the election. If these angry rural voters make it out in strong enough numbers, she will pull it off.

Judging by the level of anger out there on the range, I think they will make the effort. Prior to the writ being dropped, Smith travelled the province and the riding for months campaigning extensively. This will likely hold her in good stead with voters in Highwood. I’m predicting a close race with underdog Barlow putting forward a good challenge, but with Smith edging him out in the end.

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.