Wildrose blooms

Colby Cosh: Danielle Smith is no Sarah Palin. For one thing, she might win.

Wildrose bloomsSo what’s Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith reading these days when she’s not busy haunting the nightmares of Alberta Progressive Conservatives? Does she curl up with one of her favourite libertarian ur-texts—Atlas Shrugged, maybe, or Friedrich von Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society”? It turns out she’s enjoying a timely Christmas gift that has the attention of politicians everywhere: The Audacity to Win, David Plouffe’s memoir of the strategies behind Barack Obama’s leap from Chicago state politics to the presidency.

There are probably not many people left in Alberta who will still chuckle at this choice of reading material. In the province’s March 2008 election, the right-wing Alliance got seven per cent of the vote and no seats. Today, with the 38-year-old Smith as leader, it sits atop the polls as the governing Progressive Conservatives come unglued. This week, two PC MLAs from the Calgary area, convinced that Ed Stelmach’s leadership portends political annihilation, crossed the floor to sit with the Alliance’s Paul Hinman, who stole a Calgary PC seat in a September by-election.

Her remarkable ascent has some commentators talking about Smith as “Canada’s Sarah Palin.” It’s a clumsy (and, yes, sexist) metaphor. Smith’s electoral experience is even more meagre than Palin’s was in 2008, amounting to part of a term as a Calgary Board of Education trustee. But Smith is in no danger of not being able to tell you what magazines and newspapers she reads. And she is a creature of principle, not instinct. As leader of a party starting nearly from zero, her problem won’t be fighting against her own brain trust, but building one.

The Wildrose Alliance leadership race last October was an important test for the fledgling office-seeker. Her opponent in the contest, Calgary chiropractor Mark Dyrholm, was no mere punching bag. He is affiliated with Calgary’s controversial Craig Chandler and his eccentric evangelical-political marketing machine, which wields real influence in southern Alberta. Dyrholm positioned himself as the Reaganite, pro-life contender in a struggle against Smith, a conventional libertarian who stubbornly deflects family values questions.

Smith and the Alliance have been accused of not having a platform, but one notices that their agenda is considerably richer in conservative red meat than the PC government’s. She is a strong believer in prices as signals, with government as a funder of essential services rather than a front-line provider. A Smith-designed health care system, for instance, would look much like today’s but feature less central planning and more dollars following patients—a model that has worked well for Alberta’s choice-friendly education system.

The Alliance platform features other ideas that have been kicking around Alberta for two decades—right-to-work legislation, provincial withdrawal from the Canada Pension Plan, a stronger Heritage Fund. It’s particularly curious that the direct-democracy agenda has been passed over for years in the spiritual home of the Triple-E Senate. A campaigning Alliance can smack the PCs around with items such as MLA recall and free votes in the assembly, and Smith, for her part, is especially keen on fixed election dates. “Politics will continue to be dominated by lifers,” she tells Maclean’s, “until we can attract smart people from outside. New candidates from the private sector are already facing risks in setting aside their own careers for the duration of a campaign, and more time to plan their affairs would help.”

Smith did what she needed to do in the leadership tilt, thumping Dyrholm by a margin of more than three to one and reaching out to his base. Dyrholm is expected to run for the party in the next election, and he is currently co-chairing a Wildrose “pay and perks” panel studying legislator compensation. The other chairman is Link Byfield, crown prince of Alberta’s famous family of right-wing publishers and activists. He declared early for Smith and issued a manifesto about the need for social conservatives and libertarians to unite in defence of small government against the “progressive” zeitgeist. Byfieldian sound bite: “The orderly reduction of state power is the shared priority of all conservatives.”
The formula appears to be working. On Nov. 5, Environics had the Alliance (28 per cent) barely trailing the PCs in decided-voter share (34 per cent). A bombshell Angus Reid poll released Dec. 13 put them ahead 39 per cent to 25 per cent. Still, almost nobody literally believes that the Alliance would sweep to a majority if an election were held today, and Smith herself has been reining in rampant expectations.

“I have no intention of discouraging the perception that we will be ready to form an alternative government,” she says, “but we have an immense amount of work ahead of us in creating a full set of constituency associations to go with a full slate of candidates. I’m going to be realistic.” When Smith won the leadership, 15 Alberta ridings of the existing 83 had Wildrose associations. The figure is already up to 40.

From outside Alberta, Smith’s early-December statement that “I believe the science [of climate change] is not settled” may have looked like a foul-up. If it was, it was a carefully premeditated one. For better or worse, Albertans are naturally quick to see massive transfers of oil wealth where others just see good environmental policy. Smith’s climate skepticism comes with the caveat that “the world is plainly in a transition away from high-carbon fuels and consumers want green energy options”; she supports tax incentives for alternative energy research, more responsive electricity pricing (another venue for her Hayekian prices-are-signals streak), and tax incentives for energy efficiency.

It is hard to say whose side time is on, but the Alberta political schedule appears to be set in stone. Stelmach has been firm about intending to hold the next vote in March 2012 and would pay a heavy price for trying to catch the Alliance off guard with a snap election. Winning back the electorate by putting the province’s fiscal books back in the black in 2012 is the key to his strategy. In light of this week’s defections, the question may be whether he still has a caucus left by that time.