While he’d never admit it publicly, Prime Minister Stephen Harper is probably happy about what’s transpiring in his home province.
It seems Albertans are poised to dump the Progressive Conservative Party after 41 long years in power. If so, the Tories will have been punished for being too progressive and too little conservative. They’ll be replaced by a party that’s surely dearer to the Prime Minister’s ideological heart – Wildrose.
The Wildrose Party has waged a remarkable campaign under the charismatic leadership of 41-year-old Danielle Smith. She is someone Canada is going to hear much more from in the coming years. And if she sounds a lot like the man running the country, it’s no accident.
Like Mr. Harper, Ms. Smith is a graduate of the so-called Calgary School, the term ascribed to a group of neo-conservative economists and political scientists at the University of Calgary who have preached the wisdom of free markets and small government for years and who have helped nourish and guide conservatism in Western Canada for decades.
Ms. Smith has an economics degree from the school and studied under arch-conservative economist Frank Atkins, who was Mr. Harper’s thesis adviser. While there, she also got to know another of the school’s more prominent lecturers, political scientist Tom Flanagan, who would play a major role in Mr. Harper’s political ascension.
Mr. Flanagan is now running the Wildrose campaign.
It was Mr. Flanagan who helped a much younger Ms. Smith get a job at the Fraser Institute, the right-wing political think tank. Not long after that, she established the Canadian Property Rights Research Institute, an advocacy group for ranchers, farmers and rural landowners. It was another career move that could be traced back to the lecture halls at the University of Calgary, where professors preaching the rights of the individual over the state would have a deep influence on her.
The impact those seminars had on Ms. Smith is evident today, as she campaigns to become premier.
When she recently announced that a Wildrose government would use the province’s oil riches to cut $300 cheques for every Albertan, she said it was because her party believed the people “can spend their own money better than the government.” If that sounds like it was spoken by a true libertarian, it’s because it was. Or at least a version of one.
Ms. Smith has no problem with the label, even though the word “libertarian” outside of Alberta can conjure up images of eccentric ideologues who believe that the state is coercive and that we should all grab guns and resist authority. In an interview, the Wildrose Leader told me that a libertarian, in her mind, is someone who believes in the fundamental tenets of freedom – freedom of speech, religion, assembly and association. And, she’s quick to add, economic freedom.
“And property rights are really the foundation of economic freedom,” she says. “And without economic freedom, all our other freedoms are at risk. If you look up ‘libertarian’ on Wikipedia, there are about 12 different strands. Some have called me a moderate libertarian.”
And she seems comfortable with that. She is laissez-faire on matters of free enterprise and live and let live on social issues. She says her party is a coalition of fiscal and social conservatives, libertarians, democratic reformers, people worried about property rights and others concerned about the environment and conservation. Everything but progressives.
Not surprisingly, perhaps, the Wildrose campaign is full of backroom types who have links to both the old Reform Party, to which Mr. Harper once belonged, and the Conservative Party, which he now leads. Mr. Harper would endorse virtually the entire Wildrose election platform and embrace its “Alberta first” outlook.
It isn’t difficult to envisage a Premier Smith quickly becoming the Prime Minister’s philosophical soulmate and sounding board on a range of issues.
Like Mr. Harper, Ms. Smith is a political outsider who appears destined to defy long odds and assume an influential role in the political dynamic of this country. And if she does, Mr. Harper will welcome her with open arms.
Frank Atkins, an economist at the University of Calgary, taught Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Party Leader. An incorrect first name appeared in the original newspaper version and an earlier online version of the story.