The Wildrose Alliance leadership race ends tomorrow. The new party with its new leader may become a serious player in Alberta politics, because the Progressive Conservatives don't seem fully to understand what is required to protect their turf.
The Progressive Conservatives are nominally a party of the right, but the weakness of the left in Alberta - divided among the Liberals, NDP and Greens - has allowed the PCs to position themselves firmly in the centre. Indeed, in the 2008 election, the PCs pre-empted a position normally associated with the left - appropriating more revenue from the oil-and-gas industry.
While Premier Ed Stelmach's royalty review infuriated the industry, it was a winner with the broader public. The world recession, however, has turned the royalty review into a political loser, exposing the government's right flank to attack from pro-market conservatives. The government of Alberta now collects less, rather than more, in payments from the industry; has already modified its new royalty structure five times in an effort to spur exploration, drilling, and production; and has announced a slow-moving competitiveness review to see if the damage can be undone. The government's exposure on the right is further compounded by mounting deficits - estimated at about $7-billion this year - with no clear plan for getting them under control except spending Alberta's $17-billion stabilization fund while waiting for prosperity to return.
It's a perfect opportunity for Wildrose to play the game known in political science as "invasion from the margin," to appeal from the right to core PC voters who feel abandoned by what they see as Mr. Stelmach's industry-bashing, deficit-spending lurch to the left. Invasion from the margin usually fails because small new parties are easily trapped by incompetence and extremism, but success is possible, as evidenced by the CCF/NDP on the left and the Reform Party on the right.
The rise of the Reform Party is the obvious model for Wildrose. Position yourself clearly to the right of the incumbent party on the issue that its core voters care most about. In today's Alberta, that would be the intertwined issues of deficit spending and the health of the oil industry. Gather up the PCs' most dedicated supporters, leaving it with weakly committed swing voters who are just as likely to stay home as turn out at the polls.
Dividing the right runs the risk of electing the left, as happened federally for 10 years after 1993. But that is less of a risk in Alberta, where the left is chronically divided, underfunded, and unwilling to reposition itself to win power in this conservative province. Wildrose will try to drive the PCs out of business and replace them as the governing party. It has a real chance of doing so, if it can avoid extremism and create a competent organization.
Mr. Stelmach seems bent on imitating the mistakes the federal Progressive Conservatives made in the 1990s when they tried to repel the Reform invasion. Kim Campbell, acting as if the Liberals were her real enemy, repositioned the PCs further to the left as free-spending champions of social programs, insouciant about spiralling deficits. That misguided move allowed Preston Manning to carve off even more voters from the previous PC coalition because Reform seemed to be the only genuine advocate of fiscal responsibility. Wildrose now offers the same type of mortal threat to Mr. Stelmach's party that Reform presented to the federal PCs.
To persuade voters that Wildrose is unnecessary, Mr. Stelmach must convince them that he has a serious plan for mastering the deficit and reviving the oil industry (two sides of the same coin). A good start would be rolling back his recent 34 per cent salary increases for Alberta MLAs and cabinet ministers, which incidentally made him the highest-paid provincial premier in Canada. That would be reminiscent of Ralph Klein's inspired move of cancelling the Alberta MLAs' pension plan - his first step in convincing voters he was serious about controlling government expenditures. Symbolic cuts will not be sufficient to balance the budget, but they are necessary to reposition the party in the minds of Albertans.
Then come the really hard parts: salary freezes, maybe even cuts, for public employees; cancellation of marginal programs and pet projects; reduced transfers to municipalities.
Mr. Stelmach was able to win big in good economic times. Now we'll see whether he has what it takes to protect his victory in tough times.
Tom Flanagan is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary and a former federal Conservative campaign manager.