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Alberta’s Wildrose charge ahead as Tories seek to reinvent themselves

Dave Hancock, right, is sworn in by Justice Minister Jonathan Denis as interim Alberta premier in Edmonton on March 23, 2014.

JASON FRANSON/The Globe and Mail

While Alberta's Progressive Conservatives shift to leadership-race mode, the Wildrose Party will do its part to try to persuade the province's voters that a new PC leader is not going to change what the opposition says is the long-governing party's culture of arrogance and entitlement.

Perhaps more important than who will win the contest to replace Alison Redford will be whether the PC party is able to do what it has done for decades, and completely reinvent itself. Slumping badly in the polls, the party must prove it was Ms. Redford that was dragging them down – and not a sense of Tory fatigue among Alberta voters, many of whom have lived their whole life under the same party.

Momentum is in favour of Wildrose. The well-funded and energized party now needs to persuade Albertans the PCs' problem is not with leadership, but with the party itself – which it argues has become deaf to the concerns of voters, and more likely to wantonly spend public funds in its 43 years of governing.

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"These problems aren't going away because they're going to choose a new leader. They have become intrinsic to who they are as a party and her successor will be no different," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said.

In their heart-of-hearts, Alberta's Wildrose members wish Ms. Redford had never resigned.

They would have preferred to see Progressive Conservative party members continue to gossip and backbite. They would have liked to run an election campaign squaring off against Ms. Redford, whose high travel expenses acted as a catalyst to push her out of office, and who enraged fiscal conservatives with her decision to borrow money for the province to build bridges, highways and other public infrastructure.

Now the small-c conservative opposition party must prepare for an unknown PC party leader and an election scheduled for 2016, but one that Ms. Smith believes could come as early as next year – if the new PC leader believes it is politically advantageous.

However, Wildrose – once deemed too socially conservative by many voters – has many political factors on its side. Even before Ms. Redford resigned, the Official Opposition party was way up in two polls and sailing along in fundraising. Ms. Smith, by any measure, has broad support from her members. Last week in Calgary, Ms. Smith spoke to a sold-out crowd of 1,000, who paid $400 each – even on a night where many of the city's glitterati would have likely been invited to a competing Stampede event, the annual chuckwagon tarp auction. Party organizers said they could have sold many more tickets, especially after Ms. Redford announced her departure.

"We're working very hard to reach out to voters that either didn't trust us, or lost confidence in us, and address those weaknesses in the party," Wildrose party president Dave Yager said.

"We're not like the PCs, who apparently can fix everything simply by changing leaders."

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And it's not every day an Official Opposition party gets to sit back and watch a governing party create its own political crisis.

Other parties play into the mix of the next election, as well. Alberta's NDP, with its experienced Leader Brian Mason and a solid Edmonton base, has the potential to make gains in the next election. The upstart Alberta Party is fighting to win progressives from the downtrodden Alberta Liberals.

But newly minted Premier Dave Hancock, who was sworn in late Sunday and will act as the interim PC leader, said despite polls indicating his party's low standing now, the Tories' ability to adapt and change – and to unite disparate groups of voters – should not be underestimated.

"We've been through a lot of things," said Mr. Hancock, a party stalwart who has been a cabinet minister for almost all of his 17 years as an MLA. "Two years is a long time in this business. The party will reinvent itself again."

Chaldeans Mensah, a political science professor at MacEwan University in Edmonton, said the Wildrose leadership has worked to shed the baggage of the socially conservative policies that got it in trouble during the 2012 election, has broadened its focus beyond budget-cutting to include issues such as seniors housing, and focus on areas – such as Edmonton – where it has had little traction, to move the party closer to the political centre.

While he said there is still a question of whether Wildrose would be able to attract prominent candidates – a long-standing issue for the party – it helps that current polling numbers show that if an election were held today, the party would form the next government.

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"The Wildrose is benefiting from a general sense that the province is on the cusp of moving into a new era without the dominance of the Progressive Conservative party."

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Alberta reporter



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