Alberta Premier Alison Redford used her Progressive Conservative Party’s convention Friday night to boast about recent electoral success and attack the province’s official opposition as backward and divisive.
Speaking to about 1,100 party faithful in Calgary, Ms. Redford described the hard-fought spring election as one that featured two “radically different” visions for the province. She portrayed her Tories as bridge builders, and Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party as one that builds walls.
“We proved the pundits, the pollsters and the political scientists so spectacularly wrong in April,” Ms. Redford said.
Six months ago, the Tories won a massive majority, extending the party’s already 41-year-reign, but it was a tough campaign against the well-financed right-wing challenger. Wildrose was leading in the polls through much of the campaign, only to suffer from last-minute voter jitters after series controversial comments from candidates about homosexuality, race and climate change.
Although Ms. Redford didn’t actually refer to Wildrose by name, she likened the party to Alberta’s Social Credit Party, the ultra-conservative Christian movement that governed the province for 36 years until Peter Lougheed swept to power with the Tories in 1971.
“The choice was clear – between a party that is firmly stuck in the past – or as [Finance Minister] Doug Horner likes to call them, the ‘Socred Retreads’ – or ours,” she said.
She pledged to extend the Tory dynasty.
“Ours is a party, a government that unites and not divides,” she said, “…We will not back down in the face of adversity. We will not shy away from a challenge.”
Dubbed “Alberta renewal,” the two-day convention will see a new executive elected and 13 constitutional amendments debated, including controversial proposals to dump the preferential voting system for future leadership races as well as Alberta Tory MPs from automatic voting status on provincial affairs.
Political scientist Chaldeans Mensah of Grant MacEwan University in Edmonton said the PC Party is now in a “critical phase” of its development.
“To some extent, it’s being torn apart by the rise of the Wildrose Party,” he said, “The WR is going to remain a feature on the political right.”
Despite the decisive election win, Prof. Mensah said Tory party support has fragmented between fiscal conservatives and progressive conservatives, as well as among rural and urban voters. Support is also being affected by shifts in voter preferences, especially as new residents import their political leanings from other provinces, he said.
“Going forward the PC Party will have to take note of the changing nature of the province,” Prof. Mensah said, “The PC Party needs to be able to tap into this to be able to become relevant for the future.”
The party needs to emerge from the convention strongly unified behind Ms. Redford and willing to woo former Liberal voters in order to remain relevant, he added.
The party’s temperature, however, will be tough to gauge. Media has been banned from all events except for Ms. Redford’s introductory speech. The party, which campaigned on “open and transparent government” said it wanted to have a “frank” discussion behind closed doors. Sessions have been open in the past. The Wildrose has said media will be invited to all session at its annual general meeting.
All opposition parties have hammered the government in the legislature during the fall session over election donations made to the Tories by Edmonton Oilers’ owner billionaire Daryl Katz, changes to MLA pay and new whistleblower legislation.
Observers expect two constitutional items will be hotly debated.
One is the preferential voting system, which elected Ms. Redford leader a year ago, and her predecessor, Ed Stelmach in 2006, which has been criticized because it effectively allows the the third-place candidate’s supporters decide the eventual winner. A variety of majority wins ballot options have been proposed.
Speaking to reporters after her address, Ms. Redford said it’s “not terribly important” what her views are on the leadership question.
Members will also decide whether federal Tories with ridings in Alberta and delegates from the national party should continue to have enshrined voting rights in provincial party matters. The once tight-knit relationship between the federal-provincial associations has frayed, most recently apparent during the spring election when federal Tories openly supported Wildrose candidates.
Ms. Redford called the proposal “very sensible” and told reporters that she hasn’t heard from any MPs on the issue.
Tory faithful will also select a new president from two candidates who hoping to replace the outgoing party head Bill Smith. Members will choose between Calgarian Jim McCormick, a former oil and gas executive who traces his party roots back to 1971 when he was a youthful volunteer helping get Mr. Lougheed elected premier, and Lorne Olsvik, the former municipal councillor and mayor as well as president of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Association, who resides in the County of Lac Ste. Anne.