Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

If the Conservative family feud is over, can the Wildrose Alliance survive?

For the next few hours, the focus of Alberta’s chattering classes will be on trying to ferret out the salacious details of what led to Premier Ed Stelmach’s completely unexpected decision yesterday to throw in the towel.

But the question that really matters is what the impact of this turn of events will be on the future of the Wildrose Alliance. That, in turn, has important ramifications for all three political parties of the centre left, which were hoping to capitalize on right-wing vote splitting.

Let’s take it as given that the split between the Alberta Conservatives and the Wildrose Alliance was in fact a rift within committed conservative political circles. Naturally, there will be readers who vociferously take issue with this conclusion — among them, likely, the most enthusiastic Alliance supporters.

But really, if the Wildrose Alliance has been soaring in the polls at the expense of the Conservatives under Stelmach’s unpopular leadership, it stands to reason that the bulk of the poll respondents parking their votes with the Alliance were politically active conservatives of various stripes. In other words, participants in a conservative family feud over Stelmach’s hesitant approach.

The selection of Danielle Smith as the Wildrose Alliance leader in October 2009 is evidence for this proposition. She was, after all, the most moderate and least ideological of the party’s leadership candidates, obviously judged by party the most likely to appeal to a large number of uncommitted voters. This is not the behaviour of activists who would never support the Conservatives under a different leader.

Likewise, the fact that approval for Smith seems to have run ahead of support for her party, just as Premier Stelmach’s personal support has underperformed that of his party, suggests the same thing.

If this supposition is correct, what these 25 to 30 per cent of committed voters do now is critical to the survival of the Wildrose Alliance under Smith. Isn’t it reasonable to conclude that long-time Conservative Party supporters who were disillusioned with Stelmach will return to the party they are most comfortable with now that he is departing?

Naturally, the Wildrose Alliance offers another interpretation of events. Indeed, all opposition parties are claiming this changes nothing. The Wildrose argument in a nutshell is that their party offers leadership while the Conservatives have no ideas and don’t listen to Albertans.

They conclude from this that Stelmach was the symptom, not the disease, and that no truly conservative candidate can win the Conservative Party leadership, in part because their voting system allows insufficiently conservative outsiders to buy memberships and support candidates.

This may be so, but this claim still has the shrill tone of someone whistling past the graveyard.

The jury will remain out until we see the first polls sampled after Stelmach’s announcement, but the possibility is high that January 25, 2011, will be the day that support for the Wildrose Alliance reached its high tide.

At any rate, yesterday morning Smith was the next premier of Alberta and Dave Taylor’s move to the Alberta Party was the talk of the province. By lunchtime, everything had changed except Taylor’s lamentable luck.

Of course, all this presupposes the Conservatives can now run a leadership contest that doesn’t tear the party asunder. As the Edmonton Journal reported yesterday evening, the last time the Conservatives went through this process, “the PCs nearly ripped themselves in half as the moderate supporters of Jim Dinning clashed with Ted Morton and his more dogmatic conservatives.”

Numerous candidates are already lining up for the race, including market fundamentalist Finance Minister Morton, rumoured to be the man who with eight supporters pushed the premier over the edge by threatening to cross the floor to sit as independents if he didn’t permit a brutal no-deficit budget. The embarrassment of a hyper-conservative rump equal in size to the Liberal Opposition was just too much for Stelmach, according to this yarn.

If there’s anything to this tale and Morton was behind it, he may have resuscitated his flagging career in a single Machiavellian moment! On the other hand, this would also considerably raise the possibly of an acrimonious leadership contest.

Naturally, a divisive Tory leadership race is now the Wildrose Alliance’s best hope.

We’ll see. Only one thing is certain — a day is a long time in Alberta politics!

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...