The walls of political empires such as the one that rules Alberta crumble only when the broad consensus that holds them together cracks apart.
On Oct. 17, the Wildrose Alliance, a 2008 coalition of the Wildrose and the Alberta Alliance parties, will select either Danielle Smith or Mark Dyrholm as its leader. That and the outcome of the Progressive Conservatives' leadership review of Premier Ed Stelmach will determine the answer to the rarely asked question of whether Alberta's and Canada's longest-lasting political empire might just have finally passed its best-before date.
The Wildrose Alliance is the provincial equivalent of the late-1980s Reform Party. Then, Blue Tories frustrated by what they believed to be the federal Conservative government's failure to adhere to fiscal conservatism walked away from prime minister Brian Mulroney's centre-right coalition and, along with social conservatives, built the wave that Reform rode for 10 years. The only foreshadowing of that unrest came in the 1989 by-election victory of Deborah Grey, Reform's first MP.
Fast-forward 20 years to Alberta and the victory in last month's Calgary-Glenmore by-election of the Wildrose Alliance's Paul Hinman in a riding that had been deep Tory Blue for 38 years. High-profile Calgary Alderman Diane Colley-Urquhart was the PC's standard bearer and an assumed shoo-in for the cabinet; she finished a shocking third behind Mr. Hinman and Liberal Avalon Roberts.
Wildrose's victory was all the more stunning because it took place in urban Calgary, where many commentators have insisted, albeit without much evidence of changed voting patterns to support the claim, that the influx of people from other parts of Canada is blunting the city's renowned conservative leanings.
The result is that political attention is suddenly focused squarely on the struggle between Ms. Smith and Mr. Dyrholm to lead Wildrose and then build a sustainable reformist wave to ride into the next election. Both candidates have well-funded platforms designed to appeal to both fiscal and social conservatives.
Ms. Smith, an articulate former journalist, broadcaster and director of provincial affairs with the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, is billed as the candidate most likely to appeal to supporters with a strong bent toward free-market business policies. However, her laissez-faire approach toward social policies includes accommodation for the socially conservative.
Mr. Dyrholm, a chiropractor, appeals primarily to the social conservative crowd although he, too, promotes free-market, small-government fiscal principles and, just in case there was any doubt about political parallels, has "Reforming Alberta" as his campaign slogan.
The ability of the victor to hold the party's fiscon-socon consensus/coalition together and then broaden its appeal is the key first step if a real revolution in Alberta politics is to take place.
Meanwhile, Mr. Stelmach faces a mandatory leadership review next month similar to the one that proved to be the undoing of former premier Ralph Klein. Notwithstanding his powerful 2008 election victory, the Premier is burdened by the same "everybody's second choice" leadership dynamic that so troubled Stéphane Dion of the federal Liberals.
Struggling to stifle unrest within his caucus as an $8-billion provincial surplus morphed into a $7-billion deficit in a matter of months, Mr. Stelmach evicted a former cabinet minister, the popular Guy Boutilier of Fort McMurray, from the caucus, punished a rookie Calgary MLA for mildly critical comments and was forced last week to respond to rumours that Mr. Boutilier and as many as 10 Tory MLAs are poised to defect to Wildrose.
Mr. Klein, to the chagrin of Stelmach loyalists, weighed in on the leadership issue by opining that the Premier needs a minimum of 70-per-cent support to maintain order. The common wisdom is that should Ms. Smith, the candidate seen as the most likely to expand Wildrose's appeal into the centre-right, become leader and should Mr. Stelmach survive the leadership review, the pan-Alberta consensus that the party of Peter Lougheed has so carefully nurtured for 38 years may unravel.
Deepening fissures are already evident between Red and Blue, urban and rural, public and private sectors, fiscal conservatives and Keynesians and - most openly - Edmonton and Calgary. For Mr. Stelmach, burdened by a weak internal mandate and the reputation that under his watch Alberta's oil-and-gas regime is all of a sudden the country's least friendly to investment, that's a lot of consensus to hold together. For the challenger, whether it is Ms. Smith or Mr. Dyrholm, it's a lot of consensus to build.
Ray Pennings is senior fellow and vice-president of research for Cardus.