A fun piece of Canadian political trivia is that the province of Alberta has never once re-elected a party it’s previously cast out of power. Thus, while a list of premiers in any other province will feature back-and-forth battle between alternating Liberal, Conservative, and, in some cases, NDP or other third party administrations, in Alberta the chronology is much more clean and organized.
First there were three Liberal premiers. Then three premiers from the short-lived, Depression-era “United Farmers” party. Then three premiers from the Social Credit Party. Then five premiers from the Progressive Conservative Party, the fifth of which — Premier Allison Redford — rules to this day.
But perhaps not for long.
The PC party has been in power since 1971, and if Alberta history has proven nothing else, it’s that all dynasties must eventually come to an end. Premier Redford — who only became premier once her predecessor, Ed Stelmach, resigned this past October — called a provincial election last month, which she is now widely expected to lose after the polls close on Monday.
Along with the inescapable phenomena of PC fatigue, Mrs. Redford’s electoral troubles stem from the fact that she is tragically miscast for her current role. As a member of the most liberal wing of her party, Redford was initially considered something of a long shot to win the Conservative leadership in the aftermath of Premier Stelmach’s resignation, yet due to a crowded field and the party’s convoluted “ranked preference,” multiple ballot voting system, she nevertheless managed to squeak into the top job with a 51% victory. Almost immediately, she set about rerouting her party in a far more progressive direction, surrounding herself with former advisers to Joe Clark — the most famously left-wing Conservative leader of the last few decades — and pushing a number of controversially liberal initiatives through the legislature, including a high-spending budget and a bill to tightly-regulate homeschooling.
Image-wise, the Premier has never done much to downplay the fundamentally un-conservative nature of her life story, which is that of a globe-trotting, globalist-minded professional bureaucrat who has worked for the UN and the EU but spent precious little time in the province she now runs. In one particularly infamous moment, she even quipped that her overall goal was to “change the character” of Alberta, presumably from the cartoonish gun-totin’, bible-thumping redneck she’s always reading about in the Toronto Star. “Not your father’s PC party,” her ads proudly state.
To be fair, this repositioning has worked to some degree. Certainly the polls suggest that Redford’s move to the left has made the Liberals and NDP even less competitive in an already historically hostile province. Unfortunately, this has left the PC’s conservative flank hugely exposed to a credible challenger from the right, and oh, look, here comes one now!
The Wildrose Party, named after the provincial flower, is very much the Tea Party of Alberta, forged by right-wing PC dissidents who have grown increasingly frustrated with their former party’s steady drift to the mushy middle. Led by Danielle Smith, a pretty former anchorwoman with zero political experience who has been repeatedly compared to Sarah Palin, the Rosers have welcomed conservative voters with open arms, and are now poised to begin Alberta’s fith political dynasty.
If elected, Smith will be an interesting premier in that she’ll probably be the single most doctrinaire libertarian since New Mexico’s Gary Johnston to lead a North American government. On social issues she’s just as left as Redford herself — pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, and even pro-prostitution at one point — but on economic matters she’s far more unapologetically conservative than polite Canadian society is generally used to, supporting controversial initiatives like private health care, charter schools, and deep cuts to government spending, as well as various libertarian gimmicks like adding a “right to own property” to the provincial Bill of Rights. If this race is a “family feud” between two segments of the right, it’s fiscal matters that are the main field of battle.
Of course, there’s been much discussion as to just how representative Mrs. Smith’s personal libertarianism is of the larger Wildrose brand. During the current election, critics have eagerly called attention to what the press has dubbed “bozo eruptions” from various far-right, first-time Wildrose candidates, such as a former pastor who vividly wrote about gays burning in “the lake of fire”, and another former pastor who bragged about the political advantages of being white. And since Smith herself has pledged to make citizen-inspired referendums a bigger part of her approach to governing, the idea that “divisive social issues” could once again be back on the table is hardly outside the realm of possibility, given the sorts of matters that tend to dominate voter initiatives south of the border.
My own concern, however, is that Danielle Smith is simply not experienced enough to be premier. Because premier candidates are selected internally by political parties for their own self-serving marketing reasons — in Smith case, it’s clear the Wildrose saw great promise in her youth, charisma, and attractiveness — much-needed discussions over matters like executive experience and career history are often ignored in the shuffle. The result is the rapid rise of politicians whose familiarity with real-world issues is either only theoretical, as seems to be the case with Smith, or warped through a lifetime of status-seeking in the unrepresentative government subculture, as is the case with Premier Redford.
If citizen-led governing becomes more common during the Smith administration, in other words, it may very well be because the alternative isn’t up to the task. Considering how rare new beginnings are in Alberta, it seems like a bit of a tragedy to begin this one so unprepared.