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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

(Curtis Lantinga)

MARGARET WENTE

Wildrose's winning ways Add to ...

She’s been called a clone of Stephen Harper, but with high heels and a personality. Some people mean that as a compliment. Others mean it as a warning. Either way, Danielle Smith is likely to be the next premier of Alberta, the booming petro-province that makes the rest of Canada turn green with envy – and frequently resentment.

Everyone agrees that Ms. Smith is highly personable. She’s also very good at kicking butt. The Conservatives have ruled Alberta for more than 40 years – one of the longest political dynasties in modern times. Even though they’d grown unpopular, most people thought they were depressingly unbeatable.

Then came Danielle Smith – a woman who has never held elected office, and who took over a splinter party filled (according to critics) with cranks, homophobes and rednecks. Yet, as soon as she hit the campaign trail, the whole dynamic changed.

“If Danielle Smith had not been elected leader, the Wildrose Party would not exist today,” says Dave Rutherford, Alberta’s most popular talk-show host. And the Conservatives would probably be safe for years to come. If she wins, it will be the greatest upset since Jean Chrétien’s Liberals demolished the federal Tories back in 1993.

Gender isn’t supposed to matter in politics these days, but, of course, it does. Ms. Smith’s gender – and her temperament – are a huge advantage. It’s hard to paint Wildrose as a party of angry old guys when the leader’s a personable young woman who comes across as cheerily competent and moderate. She’s more likeable than her opponent, Alison Redford, an earnest member of the Conservative old boys’ club.

But plenty of old boys are secretly, or not so secretly, rooting for Ms. Smith, and some extremely smart ones are working for her. Like Ms. Smith, they got fed up with the Conservatives, who had come to regard themselves as the natural governing party, one that’s grown far too complacent. The Conservatives even managed to alienate the oil companies so much that some departed for friendlier places.

Ms. Smith, a confirmed libertarian, says she’s pro-gay marriage and has no interest in dragging social issues into politics. But a lot of people say her party gives them the heebee-jeebies. Women’s rights will be trampled underfoot, and homosexuals will be forced to flee the province. These people argue that she won’t be able to keep the troglodytes and the mouth-breathers on a leash. And her protests simply prove how hidden her agenda really is. “If elected, she will unleash social and political chaos unlike anything Alberta has seen since the bad old days of Social Credit,” wrote some-time Liberal operative Warren Kinsella, who lives in Toronto.

Dave Rutherford is amused by that. Albertans are resigned to the notion (still held by a surprising number of easterners) that they’re a bunch of rough-hewn cowboy capitalists who are one election away from turning into a northern version of Alabama. In fact, they want their politics to be more mature, not less so. They’re painfully aware that the last premier they could be proud of was Peter Lougheed, and that was a long time ago. They’re more than ready for a leader who’s smart, quick on her feet, solid on beliefs and policy, and politically astute – even if she’s a novice.

Ms. Smith proves you don’t need quotas for women in politics. You just need the right woman with the right ideas at the right time. Danielle Smith is looking like one of those.

“When Albertans change,” says Mr. Rutherford, “they change big.”

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