Political commentators and ruminators are almost unanimous in their post-mortem dissection of the recent by-election in Calgary, which saw the upset victory of Wildrose Alliance (WRA) candidate Paul Hinman over Progressive Conservative (PC) and Liberal opponents. They all saw it as a message that voters are unhappy with Premier Stelmach. But it’s more than just a shot across the bow, it’s a solid broadside when a candidate from an obscure, brand new party with no leader captures a riding that has been solid PC for forty years. It means that, if it can happen in such a PC fortress riding it can happen anywhere in Alberta.
The response to the WRA victory has been interesting indeed – gosh, even the national media took note and speculated that a monumental change may be in the making in that one-party state of Alberta. Some of them even discovered that one of the leadership candidates was Danielle Smith – that caused even more amazement that so-called right-wing, redneck Alberta could possibly elect a young woman as premier. The conventional wisdom being that only politically-correct left-wing parties could have female leaders. But I digress.
Although the Liberals came a close section, their share of the votes was within their traditional average in that riding. Liberal leader, the earnest Dr. Swann, in commenting about the election result, proved once again why his party will never be elected to government in Alberta. He attributed the loss to not getting their message of social responsibility and environmental awareness out to more voters. Yeah, right – that was top of mind to voters who were clearly tired of the Stelmach government’s bumbling and arrogance.
Premier Stelmach on the other hand, seemed to be serenely unaware of what is happening with Alberta voters by declaring that the upset was due to voter concern with the state of the economy. Well that amazing insight is not exactly surprising, except that the Calgary riding in question is perhaps one of the most affluent in the province and would not be as affected by the economic downturn as more working-class and rural ridings. Stelmach took not even the slightest personal responsibility, nor even considered that his government policies might have caused the devastating by-election result. If he keeps that attitude up, his years will be numbered.
That’s because in Alberta, long-entrenched governments defeat themselves by becoming overbearing and convinced that they have the divine right to rule. It seems to happen in 40 year intervals, but governments do change in Alberta.
One could dismiss the WRA victory as an aberration, but it did occur in urban Calgary where the city media and political establishment has long considered upstart right-wing political parties as rump groups of country bumpkins. That perspective is changing mainly because there is a feeling of change and momentum in the political air – but there is a big problem – the next election is at least three years away.
The danger for the WRA is that they may peak too soon and that the economy will have improved considerably in three years. Voters may well have become complacent again by that time and will vote for the same old gang. On the other hand, a new WRA leader is going to need a couple of years to organize the troops, fashion a battle plan and build-up an election war chest. None of that is easy for a fledgeling party. A new leader will also need to derail any temptations to pursue off-the-wall policies and will need to sidetrack kooky candidates from being nominated – all of which would be political hay for the urban media and established old -ine parties.
What about the voter mood outside the urban centres – well it doesn’t take a political genius to figure out that if they are really upset in the city with the provincial government, than most assuredly there is real annoyance in small towns and the countryside. Decisions made by the Stelmach government on energy, health and agriculture issues have severely affected the fragile rural economy and soured a lot of voters. This government’s penchant for centralizing power in Edmonton does not go over well and has a cumulative effect in the voters’ memory. Whether or not this all will register on the PC party waits to be seen – but politics in Alberta is guaranteed to become a lot more interesting and colourful over the next couple of years – and it’s about time.