To understand why Danielle Smith and her Wildrose Party have surged to an apparently commanding lead in the Alberta election, let’s go back to an event she held early on in the campaign.
The scene is an indoor soccer field, in a beautiful recreational complex in the south part of this city, which sits amid rolling hills in the south-centre of the province. It’s a photo-op to help promote an earlier tax credit announcement for families. There are soccer moms, and a few dads, and little kids kicking balls.
And out of nowhere comes 57-year-old Siobhan MacGowan, dressed in jeans and a denim shirt and with full purpose in her eyes. She comes up behind Ms. Smith and grabs her hand.
“You have to win,” she begins telling the Wildrose Leader. “We have to get rid of those bandits. Us conservatives have been bamboozled by the PCs for too long now.”
Ms. Smith smiles and puts a gentle arm around her admirer. Ms. MacGowan keeps talking.
She tells the Wildrose Leader about how Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford is the “first NDP leader the province has ever had,” and how the best government Alberta ever had was led by Social Credit premier Ernest Manning, and how the province needs to be directed by a true, blue, honest-to-goodness conservative party, not the fake one it’s had.
And all the while she peers deep into Ms. Smith’s eyes, seemingly looking for assurance. She now has the Wildrose Leader’s hand in both of hers and is saying how she doesn’t know anybody who doesn’t feel exactly the same way she does.
“You have to save this province, Danielle,” says Ms. MacGowan. “You have to.”
Finally, and reluctantly, she releases the Wildrose Leader from her grasp.
As the election campaign nears its midway point, and a crucial juncture, Ms. Smith’s encounter with Siobhan MacGowan remains, for me, the best explanation of what is happening in Alberta. And by that I mean the increasing likelihood that the 41-year reign of the Progressive Conservative Party is coming to an end.
Of course, there are many reasons for the Tories’ decline; there have been scandals and all manner of gaffes and miscues in the last couple of years that have fed the Wildrose surge. And Wildrose’s near-flawless campaign is also a factor. But at its heart, this election is about betrayal, the betrayal true conservatives in the province have felt for years now at the hands of the provincial Tories.
For those true-blue conservatives, Ms. Smith has arrived as a saviour, one who is going to spare them any more time trapped in the purgatory of progressivism to which they feel Alberta has been subjected for too long.
Dave Rutherford, the popular conservative radio talk show host based in Calgary who often shapes political debate in the province, could sense this coming.
“You’ve heard the expression, ‘I didn’t leave the party, the party left me,’ ” says Mr. Rutherford, wolfing down a sandwich before heading off to a regular television appearance on Sun TV. “That’s what a lot of people were saying.”
And the hard-core conservative base in the Progressive Conservative Party now has an option it didn’t have before – one led by a telegenic, media-savvy leader who has even charmed some liberal-minded types into taking a look at what her party is offering. But now comes the hard part for Wildrose – withstanding the barrage of attacks it will face from an increasingly desperate Tory Party that can see the foundation of its dynasty crumbling.
It began earlier this week, when the Tories alerted the public to the “conscience rights” provision in Wildrose’s policy platform. This is the principle that says marriage commissioners and health professionals could refuse services based on their personal beliefs. And those beliefs could be opposition to gay marriage, for instance, or abortion.
Ms. Smith did her best to avoid the storm by saying judges would decide these thorny legal matters. She never did say where she personally stood on the issue, and I thought she got off the hook a bit on this one. So where does Ms. Redford and her party now go with their strategy to try to scare voters away from Wildrose?
Progressive bloggers in the province have begun to expose Wildrose candidates who have taken controversial stands in the past. One of those is Ron Leech, an evangelical pastor who wrote in the Calgary Herald in 2004 that “to affirm homosexuality is to distort the image of God, to insult the nature and being of God.”
Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary and a long-time observer of Alberta politics, believes it’s legitimate to ask what Alberta might look like under a Wildrose government.
“Look,” he says over the phone, “Wildrose aren’t conservatives by any proper definition; they’re reactionary modernists. They want to put the state back to something it looked like in 1920 but use modern technologies to do that.
“This is a party that talks about choice, which is a code for school vouchers in education, which in and of itself is code for privatization. There’s no doubt that they have this in their agenda.”
Mr. Rutherford, meantime, dismisses the idea that Wildrose is a party made up of extremists and kooks with closets full of potentially lethal dirty laundry. He says they’re the same people who once belonged to the Progressive Conservatives.
“Why all of a sudden are they scary when they were not scary when they were with the PCs?” he asks.
Ms. Smith’s next big test will be the leaders debate on April 12. If Ms. Redford is going to try to spook people from voting Wildrose, this may be the forum in which she chooses to do it. Then again, with many voters it may not matter.
Just ask Siobhan MacGowan.