Skip to main content

On the surface, and to the uninitiated, all has been calm in Alberta politics. One Progressive Conservative premier, Ralph Klein, gave way to another, Ed Stelmach, who won another majority. The Conservative dynasty that began with Peter Lougheed in 1971 rolls on.

Appearances deceive. For quite a while now, and for a variety of reasons, a lot of Albertans haven't been satisfied with their government. They didn't think Mr. Klein handled the boom well, and they don't think Mr. Stelmach has handled the downturn well. They believe both governments have lacked vision, plans, even basic competence.

You could feel the unhappiness in the province as long ago as 2005, when, with oil revenues pouring in, more and more Conservatives thought Mr. Klein wasn't up to the job any more. In 2006, they essentially pushed him out of the leadership.

Then came Mr. Stelmach's election victory in 2008, but with the lowest voter turnout in Canadian history. Since then, he has squandered whatever limited enthusiasm he enjoyed. He is now, according to one poll, the least popular premier in the country. Yes, he recently won a 77-per-cent vote to affirm his leadership at a party convention, but his people had to use strong-arm tactics to secure that vote.

In a normal democratic culture, when people are disillusioned or angry or disappointed with one gang in power, they close their eyes, hold their noses and vote in the official opposition. But Alberta has a weird political culture in which the official opposition, being Liberal, can never win, so all the currents of dissent happen within the conservative world.

Ferment has been bubbling beneath the surface for years, but is now very public, courtesy of Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance Party.

Ms. Smith, telegenic, articulate and intelligent, has her new party leading in the polls. Two Conservative MLAs have joined her team. Money is pouring in from the oil patch and the grassroots. Some Conservative organizers are bolting. All the momentum in Alberta politics is hers. It's the conservative revolt from within, against the Conservatives.

And it's a revolt rather than a revolution, because spending an hour and a half with Ms. Smith shows a leader who, rhetoric aside, isn't challenging what's being done so much as how it's being done. Her major charge against the Stelmach government: It's incompetent. Hardly a revolutionary cry, although one that could produce a revolution that eventually sends the Conservatives packing.

She'd like to reduce the increase in spending, but she's not calling for big spending cuts. She'd like to freeze government spending, but good luck with a health-care budget that rises by at least 6 per cent a year.

She doesn't promise any tax cuts, a staple of populist politics. She isn't going to challenge the Canada Health Act, as Mr. Klein threatened. She's not going to privatize anything. Her preference, as you'd expect, is for smaller government, but she mostly offers ideological bromides about how things might be done differently. And she is decidedly not a social conservative, although some of her rural, grassroots supporters certainly are.

In one startling way, however, Ms. Smith is quite different. Many people outside Alberta think the province isn't doing enough to curb greenhouse-gas emissions. Ms. Smith, by contrast, thinks the province is doing way too much.

She puts it bluntly: The science of global warming is inconclusive. That makes her the only political leader in Canada to think that way, and it's a view shared by no major world leader anywhere, except maybe in Saudi Arabia.

From this premise, Ms. Smith rejects a cap-and-trade system of the kind the federal Conservatives say they will introduce. Shut down the Alberta $2-billion carbon sequestration fund, she says. Instead, switch coal-fired electrical plants over to natural gas, and have half the province's cars run on natural gas, even though only a handful of such cars are made in North America each year.

The political fact is, however, that a lot of small-c conservatives agree with Ms. Smith's climate-change views. So do some in the oil and gas sector who would love a premier who wants Alberta to do even less.