Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith’s identification of her party with British Prime Minister David Cameron’s destructive “Big Society” is the first significant blunder of her remarkably successful campaign to turn a right-wing fringe party into a serious contender for power, thereby moving the goalposts of Alberta’s political playing field far to the right.

As lamely innocuous as the term Big Society may sound to voters who haven’t been paying attention, the reality of Cameron’s neo-Thatcherite attack on social services and human rights in Britain is well known. So the presumption that Smith intends to bring this disaster to Alberta is a potential rallying cry for Wildrose opponents of all stripes.

The dots between the Big Society and the social and economic upheaval in the United Kingdom today are easy to connect. Once connected, the emerging picture will likely trouble many moderate Alberta voters who continue to indicate to pollsters they view public services with confidence and favour, especially in health care.

So the normally careful Smith’s March 2 fund-raiser speech in Edmonton in effect provided a target at which her opponents can take aim for the first time in her canny campaign for power.

Since Smith and her handlers are masters of the non-threatening turn of phrase, the glib promise of better policy results delivered with a smile and accompanied by a charming parable but few meaningful facts, this is a significant development. If, that is, her political opponents choose to use it.

The party best placed to use this line of attack effectively is Alberta’s natural governing party of 40 years, the Progressive Conservatives, who are currently in the process of reinventing themselves as … something new. Just what that something new will be, of course, is not immediately clear and will depend on which leader they choose.

So, ultimately, the decision on how hard the Tories press the Big Society attack depends on which leader Conservative party members choose to lead the party when Premier Ed Stelmach steps down next fall. And remember, in Alberta that includes a strange brew of people from both the right and left who are not really Conservatives.

If they choose a fiscal hawk like former finance minister Ted Morton, they are less likely to favour this line of attack unless they are forced to use it to ensure their survival.

After all, Morton advocates essentially the same harsh policies as the Wildrose Alliance. Moreover, Morton has made it clear he would like to woo the disillusioned Tories who make up the bulk of Wildrose supporters back to the Mother Ship as quickly as possible by promising to set it on a more rightward course.

However, if party voters choose a candidate from the progressive side of the still-big PC tent — such former ministers as Doug Horner, Alison Redford and Gary Mar likely all qualify for this description — we can expect to see more interest in a Conservative attack on this front.

After all, old habits die hard, and it would appeal to many core PC voters willing to give their reinvented party one more opportunity at power. At the same time, any of the three potential leaders might conclude that the party’s hard right is lost anyway, gone to the waiting arms of the Wildrose Alliance.

Such a strategy is sure to tempt supporters of the crumbling Liberals and the still formless Alberta Party, frightened by the prospect of a hard-right Wildrose government, to vote for the Conservatives. Even some of Alberta’s hardy New Democrats might be enticed to vote Conservative in such circumstances.

In many ridings, this phenomenon could result in similar Conservative victories to past elections, though powered by a completely different mix of voters.

Naturally, it seems likely that the Liberals, Alberta Party and NDP will adopt this form of attack as well. But should they?

It remains an open question whether it can be used effectively by an Alberta Liberal Party seemingly on the edge of collapse (though that could change with the choice of the right leader), an Alberta Party that doesn’t yet know where it stands on many issues (although that could change if it knuckles down and addresses the question) and an NDP that only interests voters in a few Edmonton ridings (a phenomenon unlikely to change any time soon).

Since the parties of the centre and left risk chasing their own voters to the Conservatives if they paint the Wildrose Alliance as far-right nuts, they might be smarter to argue there’s really no difference between the Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance, only that the Alliance is more honest about what they’ll do once they’re in office.

This would be especially true of Morton emerges as the Conservative leader.

For the moment at least, the Tories seem the most likely beneficiaries of this unexpected and troubling Wildrose revelation.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...