The Tory centre speaks volumes

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JOHN STEWART

Black Press

Ted Morton has failed. Rick Orman has failed. Danielle Smith is waiting to succeed based on their failure.

Does this make sense?

Picking through the numbers, and sifting through the fallout, from the first day of voting to appoint Alberta’s next premier will draw plenty of comment over the next two weeks.

But most fundamentally, Albertans should know this: the centre has spoken and it is decidedly urban in its home address.

And the centre is not Wildrose Party Leader Smith’s constituency, just as it is not Ted Morton’s, nor is it Rick Orman’s.

On Saturday, Gary Mar drew a healthy 41 per cent of the votes for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, but did not win the necessary majority.

Much of his support in the first round of voting on Saturday came from urban voters.

He drew 57 per cent of the Edmonton vote and every one of its constituencies.

Alison Redford earned 18 per cent of the vote and remains on the ballot for the Oct. 1 runoff. Her support was strongest in and around Calgary.

With 14 per cent of the vote, Doug Horner also remains on the ballot. But his support is essentially rural and northern, although he is a centrist candidate, too.

Gone are Morton, Orman and Doug Griffiths. Morton and Orman were the right-of-centre candidates who preached a return to the roots of the party. Griffiths, for his part, was a decidedly rural candidate.

The problem with the return-to-right-wing-roots mantra, of course, is that it runs counter to the values of the majority of Albertans.

And it runs counter to the history of the party, which was built by a man (Peter Lougheed) who was decidedly centrist, and urban. The push to the right by Ralph Klein ran against the party’s foundation, and was embraced for its fiscal necessity rather than its lasting philosophy.

Ed Stelmach’s ascendancy to the premiership was principally the work of rural voters, but it was also done in repudiation of the fringes of the party: voters in 2006 wanted the middle ground. Stelmach offered, it seemed, the perfect mix: he was rural and he was a centrist, as little as we knew about him.

We found out only later that he was also a less than inspiring leader.

And for every gain that Wildrose has made since Stelmach became premier, it is fair to say it was more about voters’ disaffection with his leadership than it was with Smith’s right-leaning alternatives.

As soon as Stelmach announced his departure, popular opinion polls swung away from Wildrose and back to the Tories.

Take Stelmach out of the mix, introduce Morton and Orman on one side and Mar and Redford on the other, and Conservative party members had another chance to reject the right. And the result is the same.

Saturday’s first ballot drew less than two-thirds of the votes that the 2006 process did, and could well have to do with timing: harvest remains in full swing.

It might also mean that rural voters are moving away from the Conservatives and their middle-of-the-road views, in favour of the Wildrose.

But, as polarizing as that can be, it should clarify the broader picture: the vast majority of the 3.7 million Albertans (better than 80 per cent) live in urban areas.

By sheer volume, urban voters are the decision makers — despite a skewed electoral map that gives rural voters unnatural weight in legislature.

And urban voters, at least within the Conservative party, do not want a right-wing leader. If the broader electorate follows suit — and it has for 40 years — then it is safe to say that urban voters will not be choosing the Wildrose Party any time soon.

John Stewart is the Red Deer Advocate’s managing editor.

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