As the new leader of the Wildrose Alliance, I believe that Danielle Smith could be a game-changer in Alberta politics. Why should you care if you're not a conservative? The potential of an insurgence by an non-traditional opposition party should be a wake up call to the other two opposition parties in the Alberta Legislature: the Liberals and NDP.
(Photo of Paul Hinman by K-Ideas)
I know many self-described centrist, centre-left, independent, and progressive-minded Albertans who are engaged in their communities, but see little value in joining and contributing to these two parties. Both the Liberals and NDP have had challenges in growing their ranks since peaking both electorally and in support in the 1980s (for the NDP) and 1990s (for the Liberals). After attending the most recent Liberal and NDP conventions, I am convinced that both parties are stuck in neutral and have become too comfortable in their default positions as Alberta's legislative opposition.
The recent by-election in Calgary-Glenmore was an important electoral test for the Liberals. With an experienced candidate and campaign team, a leader from Calgary, and their not so distant by-election victory Calgary-Elbow, the Liberals should have won in Calgary-Glenmore. Liberal support held steady on election day, but their opportunity was usurped by Paul Hinman, whose insurgent campaign saw Wildrose Alliance support quadruple since the 2008 election. The NDP candidate barely registered with 148 votes.
Following the 2008 provincial election, the Democratic Renewal Project has promoted the merger of the Liberals and NDP in an effort to defeat the governing Progressive Conservatives. While I don't believe that their proposal is viable or will lead to the solution they desire, I do think that they are on to something far more valuable than the current parties are offering Albertans: Out of the box thinking.
Where do the Greens go?
With the disappearance of the Alberta Greens, where will the 43,563 Albertans who marked an X beside a Green candidate put their votes in the next election? Many people incorrectly label the Alberta Greens as a left-wing fringe party, but much of their strongest support comes from traditionally conservative areas in central Alberta and Calgary. With no Greens on the ballot in the next election, the party that exerts itself as a non-traditional alternative to the PCs may benefit from much of their support.
What about the PCs?
It would be foolish to underestimate the role that the element of 'power' plays in attracting people to our province's natural governing party, the Progressive Conservatives. There are many reasons why citizens gravitate to political parties, but much like past carnations of the Liberal Party of Canada, a large factor is the desirability of being on the winning side.
Elections in Alberta have become less about which is the best to slate of candidates to govern our province, and more about whether or not to renew the mandate of the natural governing party (which leads me to believe that it may be more effective to have a 'none of the above' choice on the ballot). Given near unlimited financial and organization resources, and facing minimal opposition, you don't need to be a rocket scientist to understand how the PCs have continually formed large majority governments. The rare existence of real electoral challengers has led to a festering institutional mediocrity that was demonstrated by Premier Ed Stelmach's pre-produced televised address.
After nearly 40 years in office, it is sometimes difficult for even an objective person to decipher what actual principles drive Alberta's natural governing party.
One of the great successes of the Alberta PCs have been their ability to maintain a big tent that includes a broad range of political ideologies and beliefs. Demonstrated over the past 40 years since Peter Lougheed welcomed Liberal MLA Bill Dickie into the PC caucus in 1969, even the current PC caucus includes Red Tories like Dave Hancock and Janice Sarich and social conservatives like Ted Morton and Rob Anderson. In between these two camps includes a large group of MLAs who have very likely chosen to wear the PC brand because it affords them a seat in the government benches.
A number of former PC MLAs and insiders have already joined the now Smith-led party, but will it translate into the kind of migration that led Preston Manning to crush the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada in 1993?
A new party?
I am convinced that it is only a matter of time before a new political movement of independent progressive minded Albertans emerges in our province.
Some political watchers have suggested that the rift on the right is an opportunity to draw progressive Albertans together under a new political banner. Far from a new idea, the prospect of a new political movement in Alberta is something that I am hearing increasingly from friends and associates who have been both politically active or never affiliated with a party or candidate. Their reasons are vast - Bill 44, cuts to health care, the environment, the record deficit - but the underlying message that I continue to hear is that the current government is out of touch, arrogant, and has squandered long-term opportunity for short-term gain.
In the last election, the PCs earned just 501,063 votes, or roughly 22% of the total eligible vote, which suggests that while their vote may be a mile wide it may only be an inch deep. Perhaps a 60% voter turnout is an unreasonable prediction for a modern liberal democracy, but if a new political movement could earn its support by increasing the popular vote by 20% without disturbing the earned votes from the last election, it would be able to challenge the PCs hold on government.
Will apathy win?
Of course, there is the very real possibility that new found support for the Wildrose Alliance will simply flame out, our electoral environment will remain uncompetitive, no new political movement will emerge, and Albertans will once again avoid the polls in droves.
As an Albertan, I have been told that manifest destiny is in my blood. I have little doubt that it is only a matter of time before we witness a big political shift in our province, but it will be up to Albertans to decide what this change will embody.