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Despite the story line, did Wildrose Alliance blunder on policy?

Danielle Smith

The prevailing wisdom in Alberta journalistic circles is that Danielle Smith and the far-right Wildrose Alliance achieved the three things they needed at their June 24-25 policy convention in Red Deer to successfully challenge Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservatives in the next general election.

In reality, it ain't necessarily so.

Certainly, Smith, well known to be a polished performer, turned in a polished performance. It would have only been news if she hadn't. As expected, she read an excellent speech -- although it remains a speech that deserves serious fact checking.

Also as expected, the Wildrose Alliance proved it could successfully put on a big glitzy meeting in a big hotel -- just for comparative purposes, the very same big hotel at which Stelmach received a 77.4-per-cent endorsement from his Tories at their last big meeting in November 2009.

However, it is not at all clear that the Wildrose Alliance succeeded in its third necessary goal of getting its delegates to endorse a policy platform moderate enough to soothe skittish Alberta voters.

Now, to hear the uncritical mainstream media and the usual academic suspects tell it, the Alliance struck exactly the right policy note to win the hearts of Albertans and achieve a big victory whenever Stelmach decides to call an election. According to this version of events, the platform chosen by the delegates was just right-wing enough to appeal to conservative Albertans, and not a bit more.

In other words, the media will get the entertaining horserace it is praying for between the Wildrose Alliance and the Conservatives.

Indeed, according to this interpretation, about the only people said to be dissatisfied with the outcome are the party's old-line true believers -- the gun nuts, western separatists and the most virulent anti-abortionists. These are, of course, the very people a successful conservative Canadian politician nowadays wants to be seen to be disappointing!

But this line of reasoning -- which we are destined to hear over-and-over-again in the media for the next year or more -- is far from a given.

In fact, a strong case can be made that Smith and the Alliance blundered in their supposedly moderate policy prescriptions. First, it is by no means clear the public has been persuaded that the party means what it says when it tries to sound moderate. Second, despite its effort to portray itself in the middle of the ideological road, it inexplicably stuck with radical policies on labour, health and education that will alienate many potential supporters.

Even Alberta's tame media could hardly avoid noting the strict discipline enforced at the Wildrose Convention, most famously on the party's many gun nuts. This group had put forward a resolution supporting the "right" of Albertans to bear arms. "Basically I support ... what's written here," the Edmonton Journal quoted one hapless member undiplomatically stating during the public debate. "I'm just worried about how this may be received in the public and portrayed the media, so I’m voting no."

To many Albertans, this remark graphically illustrated the party's apparent willingness to soft-pedal its own core beliefs to appear to be moderate, raising the spectre of a "hidden agenda." It also showed the iron control over members exercised by the Alliance's supposedly libertarian leadership.

"This is no shift to the centre," commented former Conservative and influential blogger Ken Chapman. "It is merely a cynical calculating crusade to take political power and move Alberta society to the far right as fast as possible."

Meanwhile, given its efforts to appear moderate on other issues, it is hard to understand why the Wildrose Alliance stuck with its commitment to charter schools, sure to alienate politically active teachers province-wide; more private sector health care, certain to frighten many nervous voters; and "right-to-work" laws associated with the most economically backward U.S. states, designed to kill unions by crippling their ability to bargain effectively.

They also stuck with a policy supporting "conscience rights" for health care workers -- code for allowing health workers to refuse to provide abortion-- and birth control--related services.

The explanation for most of the health and education policies is likely Smith's sincere ideological commitment to the supposed benefits of privatization of public services. Neither is likely to play well with the general public, and both will be fodder for attacks by other parties, particularly the Conservatives.

As for "right-to-work" legislation, a vocal minority in Alberta despises unions and supports such free-rider laws. What's more, unions are rightly perceived to be weak in this province. Nevertheless, sticking with this policy poses a significant political risk to the Alliance because of the concentration of well-organized public service union members in the Edmonton region. What's more, it is a pointless gesture, certain to be declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada.

It is true that Alberta unions have a poor record of persuading their members not to vote Conservative. It is also likely that significant numbers of Alberta union members had been thinking about voting for the Wildrose Alliance against their own interests.

But there is little chance such voters, especially those associated with the large public sector unions, will gore their own ox by voting for a party that not only promises to break their power at the bargaining table, but vows to extract "concessions from the civil service at all levels that receive provincial funding."

It was provincial civil servants, after all, fed up with the Social Credit government of Premier Harry Strom and voting in a bloc, who played a significant role in electing Conservative Peter Lougheed as premier in September 1971. But if they were thinking about doing the same thing for Smith in 2011 or 2012, they are unlikely to do so now.

Given all this, as of today, the Alberta political forecast is darkly uncertain for all parties -- including Smith's Wildrose Alliance.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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