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Wildrose support for downtown Edmonton airport reveals shrewd strategic sense

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Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith has plenty to gain and nothing to lose by wading into the debate over Edmonton's downtown City Centre Airport.

So why the heck wouldn't she, whether or not Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel or the usual suspects at the Edmonton Journal like it?

Never mind the actual arguments for and against keeping "the Muni" open. Edmonton residents have been scrapping over this issue for decades. We've heard all the arguments umpteen dozen times. Either you think it's a great idea having an airport large enough to accommodate a Boeing 737 a few steps from a major hospital and mere blocks from downtown or you think it's a huge and unsightly waste of space.

Just remember this: Notwithstanding a long-ago referendum that allowed commercial flights at the airport to be halted and the claims of the mayor and council, who have decided to shut it down and hand the keys over to the development industry, residents of the Edmonton region remain sharply divided on this issue.

So there was plenty of hostility in certain quarters when Smith, leader of the upstart right-of-centre political party that continues to challenge Premier Ed Stelmach's Conservative government, stepped into the debate last week. She offered Wildrose support to a group fighting for a plebiscite on next October's municipal election ballot to keep aircraft flying in and out of the historic airport once known as Blatchford Field, the first licensed airfield in Canada.

Mandel was so mad he played the dreaded Calgary card, complaining loudly that a resident of the much-envied southern metropolis had no business telling Edmontonians what to do with their runways, two of which were officially closed yesterday.

But as Smith well knows, this isn't really about the merits of the conveniently located municipal airport versus Edmonton International Airport at Leduc, which is so far south that thousands of Calgary-bound travellers just stay in their cars and keep on driving.

On the contrary, it's about good old-fashioned practical provincial politics. Indeed, this is a "wedge issue" of an unusually non-ideological sort, one that plays right into the hands of Smith and the Wildrose Alliance for the following three reasons:

First, support for keeping City Centre Airport open crosses all political lines. Most important, traditional Conservative supporters are as likely to hold one view on the issue as the other.

Second, the most challenging part of the province for Smith's right-wing party to make gains is likely to be the Capital Region, the ridings in the city of Edmonton and surrounding municipalities, where support for both Stelmach's Conservatives and the traditional centrist opposition parties remains strong.

Therefore, third, any riding that falls to the Liberals or the New Democrats in the Edmonton area is a riding that didn't go Conservative -- and in a general election the fewer Edmonton ridings that vote Conservative, even if they don't choose the Wildrose candidate, the better Smith's chance of becoming premier.

Obviously, then, last week's apparently unexpected Wildrose pitch is calculated to appeal to traditional Conservative voters who don't agree with the plan to close the airport. In this part of the province, splitting the small-c conservative vote to allow a Liberal or NDP victory is almost as good as winning for the Alliance.

Premier Stelmach, outmaneuvered once again, had little choice but to keep his head down, let his caucus members do the talking, and try to appear to be taking both sides of the issue. Needless to say, for him this is a dangerous strategy. On this one, meanwhile, the Liberals and NDP are on the same side as Smith.

For her part, Smith, a shrewd and creative politician who recognizes that an effective opposition on the other side of the political spectrum can work for her as well as against her, is deftly exploiting this reality.

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

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