In Alberta, Conservatives can truly be conservative

The Id vs. Superego of Tory revolts

The id vs. superego of Tory revolts

Blair Gable/Reuters

What does Alison Redford’s Alberta election victory mean for federal politics? Well, let me tell you a story.

I haven’t spoken to a single Conservative who’s satisfied with the budget Jim Flaherty brought down last month, although to be fair I haven’t spoken to Jim Flaherty. Probably he thought it was tickety-boo. Everyone else, once they’re reassured the Prime Minister won’t hear what they think, says the budget was a timid, watery thing.

And mostly they think it’s just not fair. Conservatives have been so good. All they want is to shrink the federal government until it’s about the size of a dinner muffin. Instead, they’ve been biting their tongues while they watch brand-new office buildings spring up around Ottawa like mushrooms, each one chockablock with freshly hired bureaucrats. They walked on eggshells through half a decade of minority Parliaments. They crept up to their 2011 majority victory on little cat feet.

And when they won the big prize, what? They celebrated victory by passing the same lame budget after the election that they wrote before it, when they still thought they could avoid an election by cozying up to the NDP. And then after waiting yet another year to flex their majority muscle, they got Flaherty’s budget with its measly cuts. Well, really, what “cuts”? Spending will grow a little less slowly. This is the Conservative revolution?

Stephen Harper hoped he could mollify the troops with a few symbolic gestures. So the National Council of Welfare will be shuttered, and Katimavik, and the National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy. Whee. Most Conservatives feel like a 16-year-old who hoped his birthday present would be keys to the family car. Instead, Dad lets him shoot a few tin cans with a BB gun. It’s just not the same.

“We’ve been wondering what kind of prime minister he’d be once he got his majority,” says one Conservative, and a staunch Harper ally at that. “Turns out he’s the same old Prime Minister.”

I don’t want to overstate the significance of all this. Power is really nice, and Stephen Harper brings power, so there is no whiff of a movement to contest the boss’s authority. But the heart likes to soar, doesn’t it, and when it doesn’t soar, attention wanders. Increasingly, federal Conservatives have been turning their attention westward, to Alberta. That’s where a Conservative could be a real conservative, which isn’t quite the same thing. See what I did with the upper- and lower-case c’s? Anyway. In Alberta, a Conservative could be a conservative by joining the ranks of the Wildrose in combat against the Progressive (boo!) Conservatives (snicker).

That’s why Jim Armour, a Newfoundlander who was Harper’s communications director during the 2004 federal election, went to Alberta to run Danielle Smith’s press shop. And why old Reformers Tom Flanagan and Cliff Fryers saddled back up for Smith. They had plenty of company. Surely to God in Alberta at the peak of an endless oil boom, a guy could say what he thought. Get that spending under control! Cut a cheque for anyone who moves! Pay down debt! Build up the Heritage Fund! Anyone who wondered how you could do all four at once, well, they must just not be fiscally responsible the way Wildrose was.

So assorted friends and former associates of Stephen Harper went off to Alberta to live an adventure. It is reasonable to suspect the Prime Minister wished them every success. I can’t imagine him voting for another party except Danielle Smith’s. But the fact is that the good people of Alberta handed Wildrose a magisterial smack, and the very Progressive barely Conservative incumbent Alison Redford will be returning with most of her former caucus to the government benches.

For Harper, this is a kind of affirmation. To understand his political career, it’s best to cut it in two. Before 2002 he was a creature of id, saying what he damned well thought, doing what he damned well pleased. Since 2002—and especially since he lost the 2004 election for reasons that will suddenly be all too familiar to Danielle Smith—he has been a creature of superego. He restrains impulses, his and others’. He delays gratification, mostly others’. He walks on eggshells, and since playing it that way got him this far, he is uninterested in playing it another way.

Danielle Smith has served up a handy reminder of what happens when you rush. When her candidates said silly things, she showed more concern for their feelings than for other Albertans’. She made a show of sticking up for aging Ralph Klein, but one thing Ralph Klein took pains to ensure when he was in politics was that his numbers added up. Smith’s numbers didn’t seem as reliable. Redford’s numbers are a fiscal horror show, but Redford’s Conservatives were the devil Albertans knew.

I’ve written before that the Harper method isn’t revolution, or even evolution, but erosion. His heart is with the revolutionaries. But in Alberta the revolutionaries get to spend four years cooling their heels. The internal grumbling about this unexciting government will quiet down now. For a while anyway.