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Alberta Conservative Leader Alison Redford: ‘There are political parties out there who are talking about change who are made up of a lot of people who used to be members of this party 20 years ago. That doesn’t sound like change to me.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)
Alberta Conservative Leader Alison Redford: ‘There are political parties out there who are talking about change who are made up of a lot of people who used to be members of this party 20 years ago. That doesn’t sound like change to me.’ (Chris Bolin For The Globe and Mail)

Alison Redford: A leader on the brink Add to ...

Anybody in Alberta can pay $5 to join the party and vote directly for the leader. That allowed Ms. Redford to gather support from outside a crony-dominated caucus, campaigning on education and health-care reforms that appealed to women voters. “She was not the front runner and yet she moved into being the front runner,” Mr. Lougheed said, “because she went into all those constituencies where we didn't have strong organizations and won supporters, and hence won the leadership.”

And then there was the sympathy vote. Late in the campaign, her mother developed a sudden systemic infection; she died in hospital on Sept. 27, with Ms. Redford at her bedside. Ms. Redford won respect and voters the following evening in the leadership debate, appearing composed, articulate and smart, despite her grief, compared to leading rival Gary Mar, an overly confident PC old boy.

The new guard

If women helped Ms. Redford win the leadership, it may well be a woman who will deny her victory in the provincial election when Albertans go to the polls on April 23.

Danielle Smith, the leader of the upstart Wildrose Party, is running hard in a well-financed campaign, fielding candidates in every riding. Although the two women attended the same high school in Calgary, they don't really know each other: Ms. Smith, 41, came of age during the rise of the Reform Party, and belongs to a political persuasion much further to the right.

In the opening days, the Wildrose and PCs had been running neck and neck; Ms. Smith's party is now surging in the polls. Their visions for Alberta are radically different. “I come from a hands-off, laissez-faire approach and she very much comes from a hands-on, activist approach,” Ms. Smith said in a telephone interview. “Are we going to go down the path of more and more government interference, more and more government spending, more and more government taxes? Or are we going to go down the path – which I think Albertans are more in line with – where we believe that individuals and families and communities should be free to govern themselves in their own way, without too much interference from the provincial legislature?”

For Ms. Redford, though, “change” is more about attitude. “There are political parties out there who are talking about change who are made up of a lot of people who used to be members of this party 20 years ago.” For her, this is an opportunity for a change of the guard. A younger generation – people with young kids and aging parents – can come to the cabinet table with fresh ideas and new approaches about what government needs to do: to “think differently,” says Ms. Redford, “about what research and post-secondary education looks like, what renewables look like, what we need to do to create a different energy economy. That is change.”

In her grand vision, the development of Alberta's oil sands and pipelines (for access to Asian as well as American markets) is as crucial to the economic future of both the province and the country as the construction of Canadian Pacific Railway or the St. Lawrence Seaway was in their eras.

“We have a resource in this province that belongs to Albertans, but it is also of tremendous economic benefit for Canadians,' Ms. Redford says. Part of her Canadian Energy Strategy, she readily admits, is to make decisions on the federal and provincial levels that will help market landlocked Alberta's resources. But what she wants to discuss with other provinces “is not just our resources, but how do we partner on other economic opportunities” by sharing research and manufacturing and refining opportunities.

Set aside rhetoric, campaign promises, and photo ops – the stuff of partisan politics – and the real struggle between the contenders in this election is between an insular, protectionist view of Little Alberta and the image of the province as the pulse of a dynamic country in a surging global energy economy.

If Ms. Redford can persuade Albertans to come along with her, she might change the province and perhaps the country. Is she the nationally focused, truly progressive Conservative who can bring a new political conversation to Ottawa?

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