One wild rise for one wild rose

Inside Danielle Smith’s campaign to topple Alberta’s most powerful political dynasty
Jeff McIntosh/CP Images

In a Calgary hotel bar, a long-time newspaper and TV pundit sips white wine and plays the favourite sport of the Alberta literati: arguing about the province’s weird political history. She has a theory. (Everyone has a theory.) It is not a bad one.

“The sudden regime changes that Alberta is famous for seem to follow the evolution of new media,” she explains. “The 1935 election, the Social Credit election, was a radio election. [William] Aberhart won because he mastered a new medium. The 1971 election was a TV election. The baby boomers responded to a young leader, Peter Lougheed, who looked like them.”

“And now,” she says, “I think we are looking at a social media election.”

The speaker is referring obliquely to Danielle Smith, whose Wildrose party is dominating polls with nine short days left in the 2012 election campaign. The speaker also happens to be Danielle Smith. After a long day on the road, serving ice cream in Strathmore and visiting a trade show in Didsbury and play-acting as a firefighter in Sundre, the 41-year-old leader relaxes by reverting to the observer-commentator role she has played since university, bantering with her staff about Facebook and Twitter as forces for generational change.

If a stranger to Alberta walked into the bar there is no way he would know which one of these people might be the premier-elect nine days from now. Only briefly does Smith stop to notice how schizoid the scene is. “This is fun. It’s like being back in the Herald newsroom,” she declares with a sigh.

One wild rise
Rod Macivor/CP
Smith isn’t going back to journalism anytime soon. She plunged into politics when the Progressive Conservative budget of 2008 convinced her that the government that had ruled Alberta since 1971 had finally become completely unmoored from responsibility. Her eloquence and her good looks made the Wildrose party an immediate threat. What the 2012 campaign has revealed is that she has the popular touch to back up the ideas. As she criss-crosses the province, she greets every crowd with unfeigned enthusiasm, and leaves with undepleted energy. Nothing fazes her. Not children, not farm animals, not broken-down people whose obscure grievances against government are detectable from a mile away.

Every time she climbs off the world-famous Wildrose MCI J4500 bus—redecorated in a 12-hour overnight frenzy at the campaign’s outset, after the initial design made Smith look like a Wagnerian Valkyrie with a breastplate of hubcaps—she expects to be met with delight and acceptance, and she is. (She also expects jokes about the bus, and gets them.) Her campaign team gives her at least two or three chances a day to be photographed looking stupid; they have her clambering around on farm equipment and aircraft, wearing work uniforms and food-service hats, trying on unsuitable ethnic garb. Improbably, she dazzles almost every time. Although there is one photo of her that she would like to take back, a shot of her grimacing awkwardly as she gave the Vulcan hand salute from Star Trek in Vulcan, Alta. “My mistake was trying to do it with both hands,” she says. “Have you tried it? It’s hard!”

Smith may have the professional resumé of a policy nerd, but she has long harboured a performing artist’s hunger for interaction with the public. “Do you remember Speaker’s Corner?” she asks with excitement, recalling the noon-hour debates she attended and participated in as an undergraduate at University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall. “I loved being part of that scene, watching [Naheed] Nenshi and Chima [Nkemdirim] and Ezra [Levant] and Rob Anders hammer out ideas in a public setting. But for whatever reason, I ended up with a career that required me to be non-partisan at almost every turn.” Only Smith’s brief time as a Calgary school board trustee allowed to her to exercise the skills of a political candidate. Her media career as a Calgary Herald editorialist and Global TV news host called upon different gifts, and the rest of the time was spent working for advocacy groups, like the Fraser Institute or the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, wherein any hint of partisanship would have jeopardized their tax-exempt status.

But the Alberta PCs had their eye on Smith. In 2006, Richard Magnus, then PC MLA for Calgary North Hill, told her she would have his imprimatur if she wanted to succeed him in the constituency. When then-premier Ralph Klein received a bare 55 per cent in a leadership review and stepped down, however, Magnus delayed his own retirement in the hope of receiving a key post from heir apparent Jim Dinning. That didn’t work out. By the time Dinning lost, the future battle lines of an Alberta conservative civil war had become visible.

And now the shooting has begun. Albertans have been living with a paradox: they genuflect before two premiers, Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, who were nominally of the same Conservative party but otherwise could not have been less alike. The patrician Lougheed spent billions on industrial policy, bought massive business enterprises outright, struggled to have Alberta oil and gas processed in Alberta, and expanded the welfare state. Klein, the son of an itinerant prizefighter, boasted of “getting government out of the business of business,” scoured the welfare rolls, and terrorized the public service with waves of privatization and outsourcing. A person of Lougheed’s views would today be most comfortable on the far left of the NDP—certainly far to the left of Thomas Mulcair. And even the most right-wing Canadian governments have not quite matched Klein’s sheer aggression in pursuing government austerity.

Ed Stelmach’s anointment as PC leader in 2006 represented an unexpectedly abrupt turning from the Klein legacy. With Alison Redford’s ascension in 2011, the turn became explicit—so much so that she has been accused of occasionally knocking the terminally ill, dementia-afflicted Klein as a parochial, retrograde figure. The breach broke open publicly in the last week of the campaign; as Lougheed, 83, put in a quiet word in favour of Redford, those close to 69-year-old Klein expressed outrage, and Klein’s wife Colleen took out a Wildrose membership in protest.

Even in Klein’s last years, ideological conservatives had been looking for a way to tame an increasingly voracious Alberta government. (In the 2001-02 Alberta budget, anticipated expenditures were $21.6 billion. The figure in Redford’s 2012-13 budget: $41.1 billion.) Some placed their hopes in Ted Morton, who taught many members of the Nenshi-Levant-Smith generation as a U of C political scientist. But Morton’s quirky judge-hating brand of conservatism loaded him with electoral baggage that the socially liberal Smith doesn’t have, and it eventually led him down a road to political purgatory. As resource development minister he offended rural landowners by introducing streamlined land-expropriation measures—precisely in order to evade those overweening courts—and as finance minister he had to defend deficit budgets grown swollen with Stelmachian spending. In Redford’s government, Morton, now energy minister, has become an afterthought. Indeed, as Redford tries to portray the Wildrose as scary anti-gay monsters, he has become a faintly embarrassing one.

The failure of Morton’s project left Danielle Smith to pull together, at least in theory, a-winning combination of instinctive libertarians and “socially conservative” evangelicals. A 2009 magazine column by Link Byfield, long-time editor of the defunct conservative newsmagazine Alberta Report and a crucial figure in the founding of Wildrose, makes the terms explicit. A provincial government, Byfield wrote, can’t help much with so-con hobby horses: “No provincial government may repeal federal gay marriage rights, or restore the federal Criminal Code ban on abortion,” he admits. (Those are both things the Catholic Byfield would like to see happen.) What a province can do is to protect religious freedoms, parent choice in education, a free press, and civilized self-sufficiency. “As the state gets stronger, everything and everyone else gets weaker—individuals, families, churches, local communities, businesses and markets.”

Throughout the winter and early spring, this careful positioning had Wildrose in clear second place, but well behind the PCs. Redford enjoyed a sustained polling bounce from her surprise victory in the leadership race, from the sudden national attention that came with it, and from her status as Alberta’s first female premier. To editors, Smith, who had captured the Wildrose leadership in an October 2009 coronation, was yesterday’s news.

But Smith had other advantages. Alberta’s old Reformers were in her corner, and in building a campaign team she had carte blanche to call upon the talent-spotting resources of the Manning Centre for Democracy. Tom Flanagan, the historian whose big-picture strategy advice helped Stephen Harper, would eventually swoop in to become her full-time campaign manager.

As the campaign travels, Flanagan’s emphasis on excruciating discipline shows through. No one, even amongst the front-line party workers Smith meets in the hinterland, says the words “if we win,” let alone, “when we win.” Wildrose volunteers, even in places where victory seems all but assured, incessantly insist that the local race is, goshdurnitall, just too close to call. The party, despite a large war chest and extensive demon-dialling resources, largely eschews polling. The directive, everywhere and at all times, is, “Run as though you’re behind.”

A refundable thousand-dollar “good conduct bond” demanded from Wildrose nomination contestants became controversial; the bond is partly intended to prevent losers from stalking off and supporting or even running for other parties, and critics cried that the Wildrose party was disrespecting free speech. But the three contestants who forfeited the cash, says Wildrose Senate candidate Vitor Marciano, lost it because their membership lists showed evidence of sales to imaginary voters. Conservative Party of Canada nomination candidates have, in fact, been required to buy the same bond on the same terms through the last three federal elections. On the Wildrose bus itself, the campaign team is bound by a toy version of the “bond”; there is a two-dollar fine, payable on the spot, for referring to an election victory.

Smith herself identifies the key figures in her campaign as Flanagan, Manning Centre director Cliff Fryers, and William McBeath, the party’s war-room boss, who was brought in from the operations branch of the federal Conservatives in October 2010. Conservative insiders are familiar with McBeath, a long-time federal Conservative election-runner whose war room has crushed the last ounces of old-fashioned prairie languor out of the Alberta election news cycle. Wildrose communications chief Brock Harrison, on the other hand, was an all-but-unknown journalist from Edmonton who had grown disenchanted with the scribbler’s life and begun to work on campaigns for the Alberta PCs. He was recruited to the Wildrose by Ryan Hastman, the former PMO staffer who dutifully went down to defeat against an informal “unite-the-left” movement in the federal riding of Edmonton-Strathcona last year.

Hastman rides the Wildrose bus, serving as its nominal “wagon master.” Marciano, a long-time federal Conservative organizer much more preoccupied with the Smith campaign than his own, tags along to make sure journalists on the bus don’t miss a single Redford flub or inconsistency. Jim Armour, who ran communications for both Preston Manning and Stephen Harper, is on hand to make sure the war room and the bus stay on the same page.

In short, the Wildrose cause started the election with some of the shiniest components of the Stephen Harper machine already in place, or ready to be installed. But the PC leadership victory by Redford, an acolyte of Joe Clark and an unapologetic Red Tory, helped attract even more energy from the old Reform bloc. Those still in power in Ottawa are under orders from the PM not to take sides, but those who have left federal politics can do as they please. When PC communications people started trying to make hay out of the dominance of the Wildrose slate by older white males, Reform mother-goddess Deborah Grey materialized to give Smith a timely blessing. Voters in Barrhead-Morinville-Westlock are said to see almost as much of ex-MPs Dave Chatters and John Williams as they do of Wildrose candidate Byfield. When Smith wielded the jaws of life in Sundre, the ageless Myron Thompson, complete with familiar Stetson, cheered her on.

But lest the Wildrose uprising be thought of as a phenomenon of Reform zombies rising from the grave to devour Alison Redford’s brain, it’s worth noting that Thompson and Smith were in Sundre to support Wildrose candidate Joe Anglin, former leader of the Alberta Green Party, and that the Wildrose candidate in Ft. McMurray-Conklin is Doug Faulkner, an ex-mayor of Fort Mac who ran there for the federal Liberals in 2004.

One wild rise
Photograph by Chris Bolin

Campaign talent, a commitment to Reform party values, and Danielle Smith’s personality may have brought the Wildrose to within striking distance of the PCs, but the party couldn’t have pulled ahead—and it has been ahead in almost every single poll since the eve of the election writ, significantly so in most—without some help from the PCs themselves. Redford has been discouragingly feeble in handling the lingering ethical controversies surrounding the Conservatives—the creepy pattern of doctor intimidation by politicians and health-board administrators; the illegal kickbacks to Tory constituency associations from municipalities, school boards, colleges and universities, and health agencies; and the “no-meet committee,” which had gone on paying private members of the legislature $1,000 a month despite not having met since 2008.

Conservative polling numbers have not recovered from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s pre-election bombshell disclosure of the “no-meet committee”; even Redford admits she reacted ineptly at first, criticizing the opposition for insisting their members refund the money. The 14- or 15-point lead the PCs appeared to be enjoying in February had become an eight- or nine-point deficit within a week of the election call. The spread has since varied wildly, but no poll has put the Conservatives back in the lead. In one survey, they are a full 17 points behind in province-wide voter support.

One of Redford’s strengths in pre-writ polling was her performance among women; in a December poll, the Conservatives led the Wildrose party with female voters by a staggering 48 per cent to 18 per cent. But some of that advantage clearly evaporated early on when an employee in the premier’s southern Alberta office tweeted, “If [Smith] likes young and growing families so much, why doesn’t she have children of her own?” In a terse press release, Smith noted she and her husband, TV producer David Moretta, had sought fertility treatments unsuccessfully. Redford did what she could to limit the damage, firing the rogue tweeter and telephoning Smith with a personal apology. Smith says the call was short—about two minutes—but adds that she was grateful for, and convinced by the sincerity of, the gesture.

There is a curious absence of personal history between the two women contending for the premiership. “I think we’ve only met twice—three times if you count the phone call,” Smith says. “Once at a Ric McIver event, and once when we were doing Stampede pancake breakfasts and someone, probably as a joke, put our booths side by side.” McIver, who practically defined the term “ultra-conservative” as a Calgary alderman, is running in Calgary-Hays for the PCs. There is hardly a better symbol of the bitter, brother-against-brother (sister-against-sister?) nature of this election; when McIver ran unsuccessfully for the mayoralty in 2010, it was Tom Flanagan he brought in to help run his campaign.

If Smith was unable to support the Alberta PCs publicly for much of her adult life, she was certainly a sympathizer until 2008, and fraternized with Tories in conservative circles. Yet she admits she has formed friendly working relationships with provincial Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and NDP Leader Brian Mason; the trio share a sense of bonhomie not present with Redford. “You could probably discern that from the TV debate,” Smith ventures. “I have a better rapport with Raj and Brian.” The debate might have been a dangerous moment for Smith, but Sherman and Mason, eager to take advantage of a possible PC rout and win back “anybody but Wildrose” voters, directed most of their fire at Redford. Smith doesn’t say it, but she may be keeping things friendly with Sherman and Mason in order to meet the far-from-impossible eventuality of Alberta’s first-ever minority government.

In a post-debate poll, Smith made the largest gains amongst the four leaders on stage, but the Redford campaign was about to find its feet. In a post-debate scrum, the premier told a weary assemblage of journalists that she would be targeting Smith on the identity and beliefs of the Wildrose slate, on Smith’s plan for a direct “energy dividend” to Alberta residents, and on her past defence of “conscience rights” for anti-abortion health professionals and marriage commissioners opposed to same-sex marriage.

Things have turned out more or less exactly as Redford predicted, and senior Wildrose advisers admit the salad days are over. “The Tory campaign was a disaster for two weeks,” says one. “They’ve been much better in week three.” Smith is on record as being pro-choice and pro-gay-marriage, and made a Harper-esque promise not to legislate on either issue, so she cannot easily be caricatured as a creationist far-right wackjob. But the emerging PC message is that she may bring an awful lot of them with her to the assembly. In the words of a Conservative print ad, “This is not your father’s PC Party”—assuming that your father’s PC Party was the one that featured Stockwell Day and book-banning Victor Doerksen as ministers not so long ago, to say nothing of Morton.

As Smith theorizes in the hotel bar, a question arises: is she ready to be premier of Alberta within days? Has Danielle Smith imagined herself visiting the Lieutenant Governor to kiss hands? “I swear I haven’t given it any thought,” she says. “The campaign is so focused on the here and now that it doesn’t even seem natural to think that far ahead.” Neither Smith nor Redford, it should be noted, has an easy task in her own riding. The Tories are running a popular local newspaperman against Smith in Highwood, and in Redford’s ritzy Calgary-Elbow, the sign war is deadlocked at 50-50 between the premier and Wildroser James Cole. (Cole certainly has Colleen Klein’s vote in the bag, at any rate.)

The RCMP has yet to assign Smith a security detail; the Wildrose campaign will have recruited private bodyguards by the time these words see print. There has been no approach from the PCs about transition arrangements. Perhaps Smith fantasizes about power more than she lets on, but for now her concern about the future might just be the inadvertent devastation of her husband’s career. For a while Moretta was able to function at the Sun News Network by avoiding working on material related to Alberta politics, but he says, a little glumly, that his wife’s success is now probably too big for him to return to electronic news.

The Wildrose team’s resistance to speaking or even thinking of winning the election outright is not just a tactical convenience. The uncertainty is genuine. Many voters, voters who have voted Progressive Conservative 11 times in 11 Progressive Conservative victories, will plunge into the booth in a true state of indecision and trepidation on Apr. 23. Oppositions in this province aren’t supposed to take over. They are supposed to struggle gamely, lose, dispose of their leaders, and grumble quietly about the ovine Alberta voter. After all that time—after men like Grant Notley and Laurence Decore literally gave their lives trying to beat the odds—can the regime really succumb to the leader of a party that didn’t even exist five years ago?

It beggars belief. Hell, it beats up belief and runs off with its wife. Smith herself was born in April 1971, at the death knell of Social Credit Alberta, making her older than more than half the province’s population, whose median age is 36. She’s known no other government than the Progressive Conservative one she may be on the verge of destroying.