Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservatives have become comfortable and confident after 41 years in power – a mood that was evident at the party’s convention over the weekend.
About 1,100 party faithful gathered in Calgary to listen as Premier Alison Redford recounted recent electoral success. Last spring, the Tories won a 12th consecutive majority despite a tough and well-funded competitor on the right, the Wildrose Party led by Danielle Smith.
Ms. Redford chided those who “wrote us off,” and said the renewed mandate for the Tory dynasty showed that Albertans want forward-thinking politics. She likened Wildrose to the ultraconservative Social Credit Party, which ruled Alberta for decades, and derisively dubbed it “Socred retreads.”
Provincial Tories also met behind closed doors to debate its constitution and signalled a willingness to borrow cash for infrastructure.
“I think the party seems very comfortable in its leadership,” said political scientist Keith Brownsey of Mount Royal University in Calgary, “but it’s also demonstrating in a profound way, the difference between it and the federal Conservatives.”
Some supporters of the Harper government, including several MPs, threw their support behind Wildrose during last April’s provincial election.
That prompted some provincial Tories to worry that their federal cousins couldn’t be trusted. Members voted to continue allowing federal MPs from Alberta to have automatic voting rights on provincial affairs, but they dumped the tradition that allowed each to bring 15 delegates from their riding associations.
Alberta Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk said the system had given federal delegates “a lot of power,” but dismissed concerns about a growing divide in the relationship with Ottawa.
Alberta MP Ted Menzies, who was one of only a few federal Tories who took in the convention, said he could understand the concerns, but couldn’t remember anyone taking advantage of the system.
The party’s preferential ballot system, which dates back to 1989, resulted in the selection of Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford in successive leadership contests.
The two-ballot system allows the voters of the third-place candidate to decide the eventual winner. It has been criticized for allowing long-shots to overtake the front-runners, such as the surprising wins by Mr. Stelmach and Ms. Redford.
“I think we’ve caught the process up to the reality that the members have been expecting for a long time,” said party executive director Kelley Charlebois.
Alberta Finance Minister Doug Horner maintained his pledge to balance the books in 2013-14, even though lower-than-expected energy revenues leave the province currently staring down a $3-billion deficit. Both Mr. Horner, and the Premier, opened the door to borrowing from the capital markets for building projects such as schools, roads and medical centres.
“Most people don’t buy their house for cash,” Mr. Horner told reporters, “They make sure it is amortized over a period of time.”
Ms. Redford said she is “very confident” that Albertans support infrastructure spending.
Prof Brownsey said: “Borrowing for infrastructure is a smart thing to do with money at a low rate of interest. But not all smart policy makes smart politics.”
Wildrose was quick to warn about returning Alberta to debt.