Unless something astonishing happens, the Wildrose Party will form the next government of Alberta. All that remain is to discover whether it will be a minority or majority.
Wait a minute: unless something astonishing happens? That Wildrose should even be in contention, let alone poised to govern, is surely one of the most astonishing somethings in living memory. Never mind that it has never governed, or has only ever elected one member of the legislature. The party did not even exist until about four years ago.
Yet it will have taken down one of the most powerful political empires in the country’s history: the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta, fourth and greatest of the succession of dynasties that have governed the province, winner of 11 consecutive majorities going back to 1971, usually by thumping margins (in 11 elections, the Tories averaged 52.9% of the vote).
It will have done so, what is more, at a time when the province has never been more prosperous, with the country’s second-lowest unemployment rate, its highest per capita income, its lowest tax rates. Astonishing doesn’t begin to describe it.
To be fair, it had help. “Association” has a nice, homey ring to it, but the Progressive Conservatives had long ago come to define machine politics, with all that that connotes: a certain ideological indeterminacy, extravagance (how do you run five straight deficits at a time of historically high oil prices?), clubbiness, arrogance, and, increasingly, a tinge of corruption — the same vices that seem to accrete around any party that has been in power too long.
Recent months had seen the party stumble through a series of scandals in that way that parties do when they have lost the plot: the thousands of dollars paid to members of a committee that never met; the threats of reprisals against doctors who complained of problems in the health care system; the revelation that municipalities, school boards and other public agencies had been making donations to the ruling party — at times this spring it seemed there was another one every day. That the party’s new leader, Alison Redford, seemed unable or unwilling to clean up the mess compounded the fin de siècle impression.
Even so, as late as January the party was still at more than 50% in the polls; no poll showed Wildrose ahead until the day the writ was dropped. As is often the way, it was only with the launch of the campaign that the public really began to focus: what had until then been an inchoate discontent suddenly coalesced around Wildrose, and its leader, Danielle Smith.
New as it is, the party is familiar enough in many respects. Its candidates and activists are in many cases defectors from the Tories. Its policies are squarely in the Reform Party tradition. Whole sections of its campaign are straight out of the federal Conservative playbook.
But Smith represents something altogether new. It is rare enough to find a Canadian political leader of any description with a fully worked-out philosophy of government, still less one that departs from the status quo in so many important ways. It is even rarer to see one with the gumption to decamp from the party that was for 40 years the only possible route to power, in favour of a lightly regarded startup. But it is an entirely new model for women in politics.
Until now, the standard-issue female political leader, at least among those with aspirations to government, was a cautious centrist, one who had learned to work within the existing party apparatus. She might talk about “doing politics differently,” but she rarely stood for much in the way of actual changes in policy. Redford is very much in that mould. If she has taken her party to the left, it is only because it was already there.
There is another sense in which Smith represents something new. Though the conservative leader of a tradition-minded party who bristled at suggestions Alberta’s “character” needed to change, it is Smith who seems the more modern of the two in style and approach. She speaks directly, almost conversationally, without the evasions and equivocations that are the common language of politics. By contrast, Redford seems to be from the planet Politic, that strange place so many politicians inhabit, whose ways are utterly foreign to the rest of us.
I think the clinching moment for Smith came towards the end, in what was easily the worst week of the campaign for her, with one Wildrose candidate’s thoughts on the probable afterlife of homosexuals coming to light even as another was offering his Caucasianness as a qualification for office. I don’t mean to defend either statement: though neither was evidence of hatred, in my view, that is hardly the test that should apply.
But what was significant was Smith’s reaction. The script in these things calls for the offending candidate to be dropped, bound and gagged, off the nearest pier, while the leader boasts of his readiness to stifle such displays of deviance, to the applause of the media. But Smith didn’t do that. She refused to disavow or belittle either man, even as she made clear that neither spoke for the party. Good. Canadian democracy can survive the odd nutjob pastor. It cannot long survive the suppression of divergent opinions, however daft, or the subjugation of every member of the legislature to the leader’s dictates.
For Smith to have withstood that temptation, with an election hanging in the balance, took guts, and not a little sang-froid. With any luck, it is a sign of how she’ll govern.
View the full article