Alberta’s wild card

Will Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance give the Tories a run for their money?

Alberta's wild cardWithin a few years of arriving in Calgary from Lebanon three decades ago, Said Abdulbaki was working with Stampede Wrestling managing such names as Gama Singh, the widely reviled Indian heel, and Jonathan “Bee Gee” Holliday. Before crowds, Abdulbaki, in a white, Saudi-style headdress, assumed the name “The Sheik” and, from the sidelines, shook his fist at his fighters’ opponents. Bruce Hart, part of the wrestling dynasty that includes his brother Bret “The Hitman” Hart, swung medicine balls into Abdulbaki’s stomach in the family’s basement, readying him for his own occasional hits in the ring.

Now Abdulbaki uses his Pizza Time restaurant, in Calgary’s gritty Forest Lawn neighbourhood, as the unofficial headquarters of the Calgary-Montrose Wildrose Alliance constituency association, of which he is president. Once a Tory, Abdulbaki left that party in disgust last year to run in the provincial election for the Wildrose Alliance, an upstart right-of-centre party that may now be shedding its hayseed reputation to become the great hope of disaffected Progressive Conservatives. “When I was doing the door-knocking some people, they say, ‘You’re a redneck,’ ” says Abdulbaki, who captured over 10 per cent of the vote. “I said, ‘No, I’m not redneck.’ ”

The Wildrose Alliance’s near-term fortunes rest on the outcome of a leadership race, now under way, that will either confirm or dispel such perceptions. Observers note (cautiously) the party’s electoral potential given present dissatisfaction with Premier Ed Stelmach’s Tories (40 per cent of Albertans disapproved of Stelmach’s performance in a poll this summer). Formed mere weeks before the 2008 provincial elections—it’s the product of a merger between two protest parties, one of which even sent an MLA to Edmonton—the Wildrose Alliance membership is growing (“it’s more than tripled since January,” says party president Jeff Callaway), while its impressive fundraising record in recent months has generated heavy media coverage.

Still, Alberta’s next election is three years off. And the Wildrose Alliance remains a coalition of the unusual. Consider leadership candidate Jeff Willerton, who for eight years has made his living selling his book, Fix Canada (Or Lose It), a political manifesto, door to door (available by mail order for $19.95). “I’m a colourful guy. I’ve done some things,” says Willerton, who in 2006 got involved in a scuffle at a Calgary gay pride parade while holding a sign reading, “No Pride in Sodomy.” Calgary chiropractor Mark Dyrholm, another leadership contender, is a Focus on the Family-style social conservative backed by Craig Chandler, a talented but rabidly right-of-centre organizer whose nomination win as a Tory two years ago prompted Stelmach to nix his candidacy. Dyrholm’s politics can be just as polarizing. “In Alberta,” he says, directing a barb at a challenger, “pro-choice is a left-wing opinion.”

And then there is Danielle Smith (target of the Dyrholm barb). Widely considered the strongest candidate, Smith has, at 38, already been a Calgary school board trustee, a national Global TV political commentator and host, a columnist and editorial board member at the Calgary Herald, and, until recently, the provincial director of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business. A long-time Tory, she is a fiscal conservative but a moderate on social policy. Articulate, not unattractive, and personable, Smith seems well-equipped to transform what’s been a ragtag party living at the margins into a credible alternative to the governing Tories, which seems to be her sales pitch. “There’s a discussion we’re having right now,” she tells Maclean’s. “Are we going to create a party that is going to be a protest party, that is going to be focused on fringe issues? Or are we going to create a party that can be a replacement government? I’m of the view that we need to create a party that can be a replacement government.”

Certainly, there are many unhappy Tories: social conservatives are disgusted by the government’s failure to reform Alberta’s human rights commission, which in recent years has ensnared a number of vocal critics of gay marriage and other hot-button issues. Fiscal conservatives are enraged by Stelmach’s $4.7-billion-and-climbing budget deficit, charging him with abandoning Ralph Klein’s debt-busting legacy. Many Albertans, and Calgarians in particular, worry about what’s happening with health care as the province cuts spending and pushes to centralize the system. Others call the government incoherent: early last month, at a press conference called to dispel rumours of new taxes, Stelmach rescinded liquor dues introduced just four months prior—at a cost of $180 million a year to the treasury. Similar indecision has characterized Stelmach’s handling of oil and gas royalties, adjusted almost willy-nilly several times since he revamped them in late 2007—moves the oil patch says have injected investment uncertainty into the province and chased business elsewhere.

It’s that last constituency that has flooded the Wildrose Alliance coffers. Interim leader Paul Hinman set a goal in the spring to raise $2 million by the end of summer, and the party may well reach it. Such deep pockets seem misplaced on a still largely formless party. “It’s a bank account in search of a party,” University of Calgary political scientist David Taras says. “They have the money but they don’t have a leader yet and they don’t have articulated policies.” More support could be forthcoming. “There’s a lot of money on the sidelines that people are waiting to plug into something—against the Tories,” says a Tory operative. “I think a lot of people are waiting to see how the leadership unfolds.” That curiosity will be satisfied by the party’s leadership convention on Oct. 17—just a month prior to the Progressive Conservative AGM, with its automatic leadership review (though Stelmach isn’t thought to be under serious threat).

Much of the buzz surrounding the Wild­rose Alliance has less to do with its stance on specific issues—in its commitment to grass-roots policy-making and its appeal to social and fiscal conservatives, the party recalls early Reform—than with growing discomfort with the Tories, and the province’s uncommon political history. Albertans have been willing to toss political dynasties from office before, once exhaustion sets in; more than that, they’re partial to novelty once the final tumble comes. The United Farmers entered politics in 1919 and won a majority in 1921, controlling the dome for 14 years; Social Credit took over in 1935, within months of being established, and held government for 36 years. That makes the Progressive Conservatives about due after 38 years (both Dyrholm and Smith are as old as Tory reign here).

That bald historical logic has intoxicated observers before. It was the Alberta Liberals who appeared to hold the momentum in the fall of 2007, just months before Stelmach won a landslide victory. Little has changed since, says Thompson MacDonald, a politically connected Calgary businessman, who argues the Wildrose Alliance is too far to the right to appeal to disgruntled Tories: “The moderates who are annoyed with this government have got no place to go,” he says. “The Wild­rose Alliance isn’t going to change that equation.” Callaway is eager to dismiss notions his is a party of ideologues. “We’re centre-right,” he says. “Fiscally conservative and what we call ‘socially responsible.’ ” Smith is also low key, part of a strategy of highlighting the Wildrose Alliance as part of a broader, benign trend among Canadian conservative parties: “The Conservative party in B.C. is now called the Liberal party,” she says. “The Conservative party in Saskatchewan is called the Saskatchewan Party. There’s nothing called the Conservative party in Quebec. So the brand name of Progressive Conservative—even at the federal level—is worn out.”

Her socially conservative opponents call her a “social liberal” with laissez-faire attitudes toward abortion, gay marriage and drugs. “The other two candidates have continued to make those issues central to their campaigns,” says Smith. “I don’t think those are the issues people are talking about.” She does boast some socially conservative credentials: she supported the populist Ted Morton in the 2006 Tory leadership race and counts former Alberta Report editor and publisher Link Byfield among her backers. To be successful both in the narrow contest of the leadership race and, later, in a general election, she must strike a balance: maintain the support of the party’s socially conservative wing while staying aloof enough from their rhetoric to attract mainstream voters in three years. It’s too early to know whether Smith can weave that magic. She is up against a formidable opponent in the well-organized Dyrholm. Nor is it clear who’s on her team. Though she claims to have a lot of powerful backers, people still too enmeshed in Tory hegemony to go public now: “Here, everybody in the establishment is a Progressive Conservative, because they needed to be,” she says.

Abdulbaki, meanwhile, knows who he will support in October: Smith. In the course of three decades he has transformed himself from a fist-shaking wrestling character—“The Sheik”—to a well-respected local politician. He knows something about moving from game to game—from power slams and piledrivers to pressing the flesh. Smith will have to adjust in just three years, but the jump from contesting the Wild­rose Alliance leadership race to running for premier will be just as jarring.

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