Alberta's wild card -

Alberta’s wild card

Will Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance give the Tories a run for their money?


Alberta's wild cardWithin a few years of arriving in Calgary from Lebanon three decades ago, Said Abdulbaki was working with Stampede Wrestling managing such names as Gama Singh, the widely reviled Indian heel, and Jonathan “Bee Gee” Holliday. Before crowds, Abdulbaki, in a white, Saudi-style headdress, assumed the name “The Sheik” and, from the sidelines, shook his fist at his fighters’ opponents. Bruce Hart, part of the wrestling dynasty that includes his brother Bret “The Hitman” Hart, swung medicine balls into Abdulbaki’s stomach in the family’s basement, readying him for his own occasional hits in the ring.

Now Abdulbaki uses his Pizza Time restaurant, in Calgary’s gritty Forest Lawn neighbourhood, as the unofficial headquarters of the Calgary-Montrose Wildrose Alliance constituency association, of which he is president. Once a Tory, Abdulbaki left that party in disgust last year to run in the provincial election for the Wildrose Alliance, an upstart right-of-centre party that may now be shedding its hayseed reputation to become the great hope of disaffected Progressive Conservatives. “When I was doing the door-knocking some people, they say, ‘You’re a redneck,’ ” says Abdulbaki, who captured over 10 per cent of the vote. “I said, ‘No, I’m not redneck.’ ”

The Wildrose Alliance’s near-term fortunes rest on the outcome of a leadership race, now under way, that will either confirm or dispel such perceptions. Observers note (cautiously) the party’s electoral potential given present dissatisfaction with Premier Ed Stelmach’s Tories (40 per cent of Albertans disapproved of Stelmach’s performance in a poll this summer). Formed mere weeks before the 2008 provincial elections—it’s the product of a merger between two protest parties, one of which even sent an MLA to Edmonton—the Wildrose Alliance membership is growing (“it’s more than tripled since January,” says party president Jeff Callaway), while its impressive fundraising record in recent months has generated heavy media coverage.

Still, Alberta’s next election is three years off. And the Wildrose Alliance remains a coalition of the unusual. Consider leadership candidate Jeff Willerton, who for eight years has made his living selling his book, Fix Canada (Or Lose It), a political manifesto, door to door (available by mail order for $19.95). “I’m a colourful guy. I’ve done some things,” says Willerton, who in 2006 got involved in a scuffle at a Calgary gay pride parade while holding a sign reading, “No Pride in Sodomy.” Calgary chiropractor Mark Dyrholm, another leadership contender, is a Focus on the Family-style social conservative backed by Craig Chandler, a talented but rabidly right-of-centre organizer whose nomination win as a Tory two years ago prompted Stelmach to nix his candidacy. Dyrholm’s politics can be just as polarizing. “In Alberta,” he says, directing a barb at a challenger, “pro-choice is a left-wing opinion.”

And then there is Danielle Smith (target of the Dyrholm barb). Widely considered the strongest candidate, Smith has, at 38, already been a Calgary school board trustee, a national Global TV political commentator and host, a columnist and editorial board member at the Calgary Herald, and, until recently, the provincial director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. A long-time Tory, she is a fiscal conservative but a moderate on social policy. Articulate, not unattractive, and personable, Smith seems well-equipped to transform what’s been a ragtag party living at the margins into a credible alternative to the governing Tories, which seems to be her sales pitch. “There’s a discussion we’re having right now,” she tells Maclean’s. “Are we going to create a party that is going to be a protest party, that is going to be focused on fringe issues? Or are we going to create a party that can be a replacement government? I’m of the view that we need to create a party that can be a replacement government.”

Certainly, there are many unhappy Tories: social conservatives are disgusted by the government’s failure to reform Alberta’s human rights commission, which in recent years has ensnared a number of vocal critics of gay marriage and other hot-button issues. Fiscal conservatives are enraged by Stelmach’s $4.7-billion-and-climbing budget deficit, charging him with abandoning Ralph Klein’s debt-busting legacy. Many Albertans, and Calgarians in particular, worry about what’s happening with health care as the province cuts spending and pushes to centralize the system. Others call the government incoherent: early last month, at a press conference called to dispel rumours of new taxes, Stelmach rescinded liquor dues introduced just four months prior—at a cost of $180 million a year to the treasury. Similar indecision has characterized Stelmach’s handling of oil and gas royalties, adjusted almost willy-nilly several times since he revamped them in late 2007—moves the oil patch says have injected investment uncertainty into the province and chased business elsewhere.

It’s that last constituency that has flooded the Wildrose Alliance coffers. Interim leader Paul Hinman set a goal in the spring to raise $2 million by the end of summer, and the party may well reach it. Such deep pockets seem misplaced on a still largely formless party. “It’s a bank account in search of a party,” University of Calgary political scientist David Taras says. “They have the money but they don’t have a leader yet and they don’t have articulated policies.” More support could be forthcoming. “There’s a lot of money on the sidelines that people are waiting to plug into something—against the Tories,” says a Tory operative. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see how the leadership unfolds.” That curiosity will be satisfied by the party’s leadership convention on Oct. 17—just a month prior to the Progressive Conservative AGM, with its automatic leadership review (though Stelmach isn’t thought to be under serious threat).

Much of the buzz surrounding the Wild­rose Alliance has less to do with its stance on specific issues—in its commitment to grass-roots policy-making and its appeal to social and fiscal conservatives, the party recalls early Reform—than with growing discomfort with the Tories, and the province’s uncommon political history. Albertans have been willing to toss political dynasties from office before, once exhaustion sets in; more than that, they’re partial to novelty once the final tumble comes. The United Farmers entered politics in 1919 and won a majority in 1921, controlling the dome for 14 years; Social Credit took over in 1935, within months of being established, and held government for 36 years. That makes the Progressive Conservatives about due after 38 years (both Dyrholm and Smith are as old as Tory reign here).

That bald historical logic has intoxicated observers before. It was the Alberta Liberals who appeared to hold the momentum in the fall of 2007, just months before Stelmach won a landslide victory. Little has changed since, says Thompson MacDonald, a politically connected Calgary businessman, who argues the Wildrose Alliance is too far to the right to appeal to disgruntled Tories: “The moderates who are annoyed with this government have got no place to go,” he says. “The Wild­rose Alliance isn’t going to change that equation.” Callaway is eager to dismiss notions his is a party of ideologues. “We’re centre-right,” he says. “Fiscally conservative and what we call ‘socially responsible.’ ” Smith is also low key, part of a strategy of highlighting the Wildrose Alliance as part of a broader, benign trend among Canadian conservative parties: “The Conservative party in B.C. is now called the Liberal party,” she says. “The Conservative party in Saskatchewan is called the Saskatchewan Party. There’s nothing called the Conservative party in Quebec. So the brand name of Progressive Conservative—even at the federal level—is worn out.”

Her socially conservative opponents call her a “social liberal” with laissez-faire attitudes toward abortion, gay marriage and drugs. “The other two candidates have continued to make those issues central to their campaigns,” says Smith. “I don’t think those are the issues people are talking about.” She does boast some socially conservative credentials: she supported the populist Ted Morton in the 2006 Tory leadership race and counts former Alberta Report editor and publisher Link Byfield among her backers. To be successful both in the narrow contest of the leadership race and, later, in a general election, she must strike a balance: maintain the support of the party’s socially conservative wing while staying aloof enough from their rhetoric to attract mainstream voters in three years. It’s too early to know whether Smith can weave that magic. She is up against a formidable opponent in the well-organized Dyrholm. Nor is it clear who’s on her team. Though she claims to have a lot of powerful backers, people still too enmeshed in Tory hegemony to go public now: “Here, everybody in the establishment is a Progressive Conservative, because they needed to be,” she says.

Abdulbaki, meanwhile, knows who he will support in October: Smith. In the course of three decades he has transformed himself from a fist-shaking wrestling character—“The Sheik”—to a well-respected local politician. He knows something about moving from game to game—from power slams and piledrivers to pressing the flesh. Smith will have to adjust in just three years, but the jump from contesting the Wild­rose Alliance leadership race to running for premier will be just as jarring.


Alberta’s wild card

  1. Danielle Smith is a breathe of fresh air. Alberta needs more real conservatives like her standing up for our common sense values.

  2. Go Danielle – stay the course. It's time for a change in Alberta and that can never be Liberal!!!!

  3. Danielle Smith a real conservative? What a Joke!

    If she wins the party is nothing but a Libertarian / socially liberal fringe party.

    The only consistent media she gets is from left wing rags like the Calgary Herald and their affiliates as she worked for them. Oh and Macleans the federal liberals propoganda machine.

    Danielle Smith has no real life experience and like Stronach is photogenic, but, would destroy the party if she won.

    Just like Romney or Huckabee were the right choices, Republicans were led to believe McCain could win. When McCain won social conservatives stayed at home and the party lost. I do not believe for one minute that if Smith wins Dyrholm and or his team will lift a finger and from what I have seen the Smith team wants to purge them out anyways.

    Danielle Smith is just Stelmach in a dress.

    • Mark Dyrholm's supporters' attempt to conflate Danielle's libertarianism with the Red Toryism of Red Ed Stelmach does not pass muster and the Wild Rose Alliance's intelligent voters will see past it.

      On the big government to individual liberty continuum, it goes Red Tories, social conservatives, then libertarians.

      Compared to Danielle, Mark Dyrholm is a friend of big government. He believes government has a role in drugs, abortion, etc. Danielle doesn't. That means she wants an even smaller government than he does.

      Red Tories, by contrast, are effectively social democrats in blue, supporting all aspects of the welfare state. Neither libertarians, nor social conservatives fit this bill.

    • Please do not hold her good looks against her. What? Is she supposed to be hideous, disagreeable and irrational in order to qualify as "real" conservative?

      Also, the conservatives were willing to accept Stronach when she was one of them, regardless of her lack of experience so nut up and quit being such a hypocrite.

      Anyway, she's so hot that I want to leave Toronto and set up shop in Alberta, just to vote her for.

  4. Smith is just Stelmach in a dress? That's probably the most irresponsible thing anyone has ever said. Smith despises deficits. Smith takes a stand and is decisive. Stelmach? Well, he just announced a deficit and had his finance basically announce that they will not take any action to rectify the situation for 6 months while they "think about it."

    Purge Dyrholm? That's nonsense. Mark is not the best candidate for this party because he isn't suited to be the face of a party, which is nothing against him. Mark most certainly has a spot in this party should he not win the leadership, and is effective at building a constituency.

    I'm a SoCon and I'm voting for Smith, she's our best hope at mainstream glory. Not to mention, wasting time on SoCon issues is pointless in a provincial race because nothing much really can be done constitutionally anyhow.

  5. Accurately describes each candidate. Great point as well about Dyrholm and Willerton debating issues that aren't at the forefront of our list of priorities. They are debating federal issues like abortion and gay rights in a provinical political battle. Kind of makes them both look a little out of touch, no?

    Danielle Smith speaks for the growing number of party 'moderates', and she represents by far the best choice to put up against Unsteady Eddie.

  6. I personal will be voting for the WRA. My only fear is that the Liberals may pick up a few seats due to vote splitting, although as they typically poll in the low 20's or high teens, it may not be much of a worry.

  7. Good to see that you are fulfilling the obligations of your position, Jeff, but perpetuating falsehoods about your opponent instead of focusing on the strengths of your own candidate is a bad sign.

    Remind everyone again: who is the candidate – Mark Dyrholm or Craig Chandler? It's getting so hard to tell anymore…

  8. …the last thing we need is Dyrholm/Chandler's 'Reform-lite'.

  9. This is the same Danielle Smith that sat on the Calgary Board of Education – the one that was fired by the Minister for being so dysfunctional. And Danielle was right in there being a big part of the problem. As a Tory, I hope she wins. She has never done anything of note, and that'll continue. I especially loved one political newsletter writer's comment about Danielle, "…that's an impressie list of hypothetical accomplishments."

    • Ha, and you think the Minister was functional?!

  10. A guy named 'Billy Bob' supporting a religious conservative over a moderate one? THERE'S a surprise!

  11. I can almost hear the banjo…

  12. A Wildrose Alliance supporter making judgements about someone based solely on their name? THERE'S another surprise, L.P. I've always been impressed by the way that folks like you, when you have no subtantive response, resort to insults. That's why your party isn't taken seriously. Just for your edification, I am a Progressive Conservative and I support Ed Stelmach.

  13. ..even worse. No wonder you bash Danielle Smith – she's the only candidate who could pose a threat to Special Ed.

    How transparent.

  14. Oh, L.P. What colour is the sky in your little world? Maybe you missed the latest Ipsos-Reid poll in Calgary (two days ago)? Just in case, here's what it said…

    PC – 43
    Lib – 23
    WRAP – 11
    ND – 5

    We're shaking in our boots, L.P. Y'all have a nice day.


  15. Danielle Smith is the best thing to happen to Alberta politics in 40 years. Time will prove me out. Once Danielle wins the leadership, and that's what's going to happen, look to name change. Regardless of where most Albertans are on the issues, 85% of Albertans see themselves as 'middle of the road' politically. Make sure the party name capitalizes on this.
    It's all yours, Danielle and company, if you want it.

  16. Leigh Sullivan,

    I am very disappointed you feel the need to attack Mark and I. I am really not sure why my name is even brought up.

    I am not doing media interviews etc… If I wanted to run I would have.

    So if Danielle wins are you saying you do not want me to work as hard for her as I am for Mark? I really feel from what I read from you that there is no room for me and others under a Smith regime.

    I am deeply disappointed with how personal Smith supporters have become.

    Craig B. Chandler

    • Oh dear. The Dyrholm Chandler camp must be getting desperate. Already threatening to take his ball and go home. Well, the WRA under Danielle will have no shortage of people willing to carry the ball, Mr. Chandler. You can split any time. Buh bye!

        • The fact that nobody with an IQ over 100 likes you.

  17. On actual policy there is almost no difference amongst all three leadership candidates — nor can there be, because like the Reform Party of yore, policy is controlled by members, not the leader. But policy alone will not get the Wildrose Alliance elected. We will succeed (or not) on the credibility of our leader and on the caliber of candidates she can recruit. That's why I and most of the social conservatives I know are backing Danielle Smith.

  18. On the contrary, Craig. I have not attacked Mark, nor will I. As stated, I believe Mr. Dyrholm to be a quality person. He's just not the best choice for leader, IMO.

    Your and your camp's attacks on Danielle are full blast, so playing the victim with your comments rings hollow. You have tried to create divisions within the party by playing the 'is there room for me in her gov't?' card. Smith is obviously the big-tent candidate. Your comments, along with those of Mr. Ryan, give the exact opposite impression – that moderates that you repeatedly misnomer as 'liberals' are not at all welcome in a Dyrholm/Chandler-led WAP.

    You have said nothing to indicate otherwise.

  19. Leigh,

    Nice spin. I will not debate on a public forum as I do not think it is healthy for the party.

    If you wish to discuss your concerns you know how to get a hold of me. Our door is open.

    Craig B.Chandler

    PS Last time I checked I am not on the ballot.

  20. Chandler is too funny.

    By "our door is open" Craig means the door to the basement of his house where the PGIB has its head office is open.

    It's a running joke in Alberta political circles that PGIB actually stands for Pudgy Guy in Basement because its the most accurage description of what his organization really is.

    Keep up the good work Craig. You're going to single handedly sink Dyrholm's campaign which is a shame because he is much better on the issues than Smith.

  21. I'm socially conservative and I would have no problems supporting Danielle. I will sleep fine at night.
    As I've heard Mark personally state and mentioned by Link Byfield ,overall there is not a lot of difference between these 2 candidates. My only hope is that whoever wins, we all come together as one team.

  22. Ernest,

    I did find that funny. Others call it "Pigeon Group In Basement", "Pathetic Guys in Basement" and there some other good ones as well.

    The truth of the matter is PGIB is located in the Foothills Industial Park just off of 36th and Peigan Trail not in my basement.

    However, I do run many campaigns out of my new 3,700 square foot house. The 1,000 sq feet allocated for the office with it's own seperate entrance has it's own kitchen, 23 phone lines used for mass fax and calling, demon dialer system, literature folder, sound proofed ceiling and walls, 6 calling station, 3 private offices and facilities and the rent is free. The house was custom built for campaigns and I encourage anyone to come by at anytime.

    Like many smart entrepreneurs if I can save some money, avoid a non residential property tax and a business tax, I will do what I can at home. I know for some that does not make much sense, but, I would rather spend money on my family and household than give it to Ceaser

    Craig B. Chandler

    • Zoning violation? Reassessment to come?

  23. Danielle Smith is Alberta's next premier, period. Everybody knows it. Is she the "perfect" conservative? No.

    But she is very much a freedom loving, laissez faire liberal/libertarian, and in fact has much in common with the Laurier-type Liberals who founded Alberta – back when Liberals were liberals.

    Most of my family has voted Conservative for as long as I can remember, but now, almost all of them are buying memberships and getting ready to vote for Smith.

  24. Jeff, your tactics and conduct are the reason why your candidate will not win and Danielle Smith will.

    "Extreme left"? Are you kidding me? Danielle Smith will de fund abortion — just because she does not want the state in the bedrooms OR wombs of the nation, does not mean she will force taxpayers to fund something most of us oppose… like abortion.

    You are being patently dishonest in your characterization, which is consistent with the way your whole Chandler cult operates. Please give it up.

    You might want to read a little about what one of Alberta's truly great, self sacrificing social conservatives, Link Byfield, has written about your pet obsessions; and why he supports libertarian leaning Danielle Smith.

  25. I really wish Ted Morton would abandon the PCs and join the WRA. He'd offer instant credibility and enjoy instant front-runner status. However, it would look just a little too opportunist to jump ship only after Premier Ed's fiascos become apparent.

  26. Mark Dyrholm is Alberta's next Premier. The first battle is to stop the Red Tories from electing Danielle Smith.

    I agree she is a liberal/libertarian as she is Libertarian and socially Liberal.

    My family is also buying memberships. I n fact we just gave $10,000 to stop Danielle and her Liberaltarians

    • LOL! I am sure Craig Chandler will enjoy your money, whilst licking his wounds following Mark's spanking at the hands of Danielle!

      • Chandler does this for a living.

        He will not lick his wounds. He is a machine.

        This is a guy who won a nomination and had it taken away and had his head handed to him on a silver platter. Normal people would be down and out for some time, he got right back up. Even if you hate the guy, he deserves to be respected. As an Ontario boy I saw him work wonders with Reform in the Golden Horseshoe and with Mike Harris.

        Smith might win. Chandler will survive. Dyrholm will be the one who is crushed and heart broken and licking his wounds. Chandler is to scarred to feel anything. He is a Prick, but, insanely talented. I am disappointed Chandler did not run.

        Chandler is like the Terminator, he just keeps coming.

        Work with him or he will re-manufacture himself and you will be working against him. Trust me, you will think you have finally disposed of him and he appears. It actually freaks me out!

        The best thing people can do is get him involved. It is better to have him pissing out of your tent, than pissing in it.

        • Chandler is alienating half of his own party. He is in it only for himself. Dyrholm's a quaity guy, but putting his faith in Chandler is already hurting his chances. He should distance himself as soon as possible for the sake of his campaign.

  27. Most Albertans are fiscal conservatives with a libertarian streak. There is also a social concience that dosen't get the press it should.

    Many are frustrated with the current government but don't really have anywhere to go. If this party can get its act together, put forward a center right alternative with some reasonable candidates things will be interesting in Alberta politics.

    No doubt people who have issues with gay rights or abortion are entitled to their view and entiteld to be politically active, but these issues are not going to motivate enough people necessary for election wins.

    People involved in this will need to decide if they want to have a real impact or just be a right wing NDP (true to some sort of principle, but no real shot at forming a government). And they should decide whether they want to articlate some positive change or continue with the "I blame Ralph/Stelmach" approach.

    There are a lot of people looking for a political home. We will see if this can be it.

  28. now it seems the political hopefuls are getting free ad space thanks to macleans….not much wrong with using a backdoor i suppose the last word is up to macleans..
    this party sounds pretty tasty considering the past 40 or so years of same old same old year after year election after election…what a boring political party boring boring boring the pro cons should be buried along with the dinosaurs…gonna turn a lot of heads that is for surethis new party! go wra!

  29. Dyrholm would make a quality MLA, but common sense says he won't appeal to a large enough crossection of Albertans to become premier.

    Albertans have no desire for a return of religious conservative governments.

  30. to call a philosophy libertarian/socially liberal is an extreme fallacy. the two are not mutually exclusive. anyone who's taken any introduction to political science course will tell you the exact same thing.

    libertarian – live and let live (religions being able to promote their own religions included)
    socially liberal – usually not as much space for religion, openly advocate the "hot button issues" and overspend on programs

  31. Chandler is alienating half of his own party. Dyrholm's a quaity guy, but putting his faith in Chandler is already hurting his chances. Mark should distance himself as soon as possible for the sake of his campaign.

    • LP,

      I am a strong Danielle Smith supporter. I ask that you stop attacking people on any campaign.

      If Danielle wins people like you are making it very difficult for us to unite this party.

      You obviously have a personal dislike for Mr. Chandler, but, if we can get him on side many, many will follow. This is not about personal dislikes, this is about the party.

      I would tone down the rhetoric. Just a humble suggestion.

    • In poor taste Sullivan.

  32. @ T.D.

    your description of social liberal actually seems to describe an economic liberal (liberal in the common not classical usage) in terms of liberals view on the role of government in the economy. i respectfully disagree with you about social liberal libertarian being a complete fallacy

    check out this site pinpoints a persons location on the political spectrum on two dimensions. econominc vs social and grades them somewhere between authoritarian and libertarian on each of these two dimensions.

    take care

  33. Mark Dyrholm's supporters' attempt to conflate Danielle's libertarianism with the Red Toryism of Red Ed Stelmach does not pass muster and the Wild Rose Alliance's intelligent voters will see past it.

    On the big government to individual liberty continuum, it goes Red Tories, social conservatives, then libertarians.

    Compared to Danielle, Mark Dyrholm is a friend of big government. He believes government has a role in drugs, abortion, etc. Danielle doesn't. That means she wants an even smaller government than he does.

    Red Tories, by contrast, are effectively social democrats in blue, supporting all aspects of the welfare state. Neither libertarians, nor social conservatives fit this bill.

    • Dyrholm, believes the government which governns best governs least.

      Sounds like Mark wants government out of most things.

      As for your moral digs? Mark's entire point was the government needs to stop the legislation of morality.

      We all want a separation of the church and state (ironically this concept started with keeping the idea of seperating the State from the chiurch.

  34. @robert — if it was the case that red tories subscribed to a similar social agenda (drugs, abortion, etc) as social conservatives, then i would agree with your continuum.
    I don't believe, however, that red tories ascribe to those beliefs. in that case, you essentially seem to be saying that a government wanting more control over your wallet is more dangerous to individual liberty than is a government wanting more control with what you do to your own body. personally, i think that this is comparing apples to oranges.

  35. The term social liberal is very amusing. It refers to socialism itself and how they actually act the trait.