In Alberta politics, it’s out with the wild and in with the mild

Colby Cosh on Danielle Smith’s new ‘Mildrose’ identity

Jason Franson / CP

Alberta’s opposition Wildrose party held its annual general meeting last weekend and sent a strong message to its external critics: We surrender! The party, depending on how far you believe the public polls, was carrying a lead into the last week or so of the 2012 election and saw that lead evaporate within two or three days of the finish line. This collapse was subject to varying interpretations: Some feel the ruling Conservatives had been ahead all along. Either way, one of the best opposition performances in an Alberta election in the 43 years of Progressive Conservative rule has ended up as a lingering humiliation.

Something similar happened to the Alberta Liberals after their capture of 32 seats in 1993; far from seeing themselves as having reached the doorstep of power, they acted like colonels whose coup d’état had misfired, and ditched their leader. The Wildrose party isn’t repeating that mistake. Danielle Smith cleared 90 per cent in the mandatory leadership-review vote at the weekend AGM, and then found even greater support for a vegan-style eradication of conservative red meat from the party’s platform.

Smith started before the meeting by trying to recalibrate her purely personal position on climate change; a few people had pulled a face during the election when she had said, “The science isn’t settled and we need to continue to monitor the debate.” The new line, if you’re keeping score, is, “I accept that climate change is a reality, as do our members. I accept that there’s a human influence on it. I leave the debate about the details to the science about [to] what extent it is and how fast it is occurring.”

There isn’t much evidence that Smith’s fudging on climate was one of the things that hurt the party in 2012. Alberta is an oil-exporting enterprise that has to satisfy international customers that it is acting decently on carbon emissions and other environmental harms. Smith tried to insist, quite correctly, that this would be as true under a climate-skeptic premier as it would be with a true believer in charge. Unfortunately, the climate debate has become incurably stupid: Literally dozens of different intelligible positions are possible, but Smith has now decided she has to take the side of piety in a brute binary bludgeon fight.

The Wildrose’s platform-cleansing went far in other respects. When Wildrose MLA Rick Anderson asked the room to give a “loud and proud” vote in favour of equality for gays and lesbians, it passed unanimously. A platform plank supporting the elimination of the Alberta Human Rights Commission was thrown out. So were “conscience rights” for health professionals. Support for the old “Alberta firewall” was expunged. The Wildrose even backed down from a “right-to-work” stance against closed union shops, although it still opposes the political abuse of union dues.

Probably none of this de-ideologizing is really about getting square with the Alberta electorate per se. The Wildrose party was able to get 34 per cent of the vote in 2012 with the old platform, despite a couple of late-breaking social-conservative bimbo explosions from individual candidates. The issue is recruiting a better class of candidate—building a trustworthy, familiar team around Smith and a few of the more promising colleagues she already has, such as northern lieutenant Shayne Saskiw.

Alberta’s October municipal elections hint at the challenge: Edmonton chose a 34-year-old mayor, Don Iveson, and other hinterland communities such as Red Deer (whose council is now led by 35-year-old Tara Veer) and Morinville (where Lisa Holmes, 33, was elected) followed suit. At 41, that young, dynamic Naheed Nenshi you’ve heard so much about almost looks from inside Alberta like a sagacious elder statesman. Smith herself is just 42, Saskiw is 32, and PC firebrand Doug Griffiths, who holds the key municipal affairs ministry, is 41.

In short, power is passing from the Baby Boomers to what demographer David Foot called the “Echo” generation. This is, naturally, happening faster in Alberta, which is a young province. The salient characteristic of these Echoes is that they did not grow up in a world of Cold War, nuclear terror and inflation crises. Children of the “Great Moderation,” they are technocratic, secularist optimizers who pride themselves on being data-driven and nerdy. Ideology, for better or worse, turns them off.

In the medium to long run, Danielle Smith needs to be able to convince a couple of dozen educated, attractive people from this generation to fight under a Wildrose standard. The new “Mildrose” identity is about making that possible.

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