"What this is is a shift in pain"

A once rural, rabidly right-wing party makes a grab for urban Alberta

"What this is is a shift in pain"Last night, Paul Hinman, the interim leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance Party, surprised many by trouncing Tory Diane Colley-Urquhart, a well-known alderman, in a Calgary by-election. Hinman took 37 per cent of the vote to Liberal Avalon Roberts’s 34 per cent. Colley-Urquhart eked out a mere 26 per cent of the vote.

The Progressive Conservatives had held Calgary-Glenmore, an affluent riding that’s home to many well-heeled oil and gas types, since 1969. The by-election has been widely billed as a referendum on the policies of Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach, whose government has wracked up a sizable deficit since projecting, only last August, an enormous surplus, and antagonized Calgary’s business community with unpopular changes to the province’s royalty regime.

Hastily put together just prior to Alberta’s 2008 election, the Wildrose Alliance remains an unknown quantity (Hinman sat in the legislature for four years as leader of the Alberta Alliance Party, but lost the seat last year), though it is decidedly right of the Alberta Tories, their weakest flank. Hinman’s victory last night could signal Alberta politics is changing and adds to the momentum of a party already energized by an ongoing leadership race.

Maclean’s spoke to Hinman the morning after his win.

Q: A lot of people were surprised that the Wildrose Alliance Party came out on top in this by-election—many were expecting a Liberal win, that you would cut the Tory vote down the middle. When did you realize you had a shot at this?

A: When I accepted the nomination.

Q: Was there anything on the ground as you were campaigning that reinforced that conviction?

A: I think that every time that I talked to any reporter, I always said the most important thing we need was time. I was very nervous we needed another two weeks. Because every day I went door-knocking we had a major victory. The best day we ever had was when the CBC came with us door-to-door. They followed us until we found eight people home. We were eight-for-eight that morning, people endorsing us, put up a sign, here’s a cheque, who do we donate to? And CBC came back and reported—I can’t remember what they said, it was just a joke. Every reporter that came with me understated it by so far. Like I say, when you’re a new party or the underdog, the reporters all favour Colley-Urquhart and Stelmach and company and how great they’re doing. It’s just a bunch of hogwash.

Q: Colley-Urquhart, she’s a well known alderman. And she didn’t just lose, she was really crushed.

A: You got it.

Q: Were you surprised by how badly the Tories actually ended up doing?

A: There was no support for Ed. And that’s why our campaign was about Premier Stelmach. So many people said, ‘Well I didn’t vote for Ed anyways.’ And I say, ’No you voted for him. A vote for Diane is a vote for Ed.’ And that’s the only way that he’ll spin it. He’ll puff out his chest, he’ll gloat, and say, ‘See, everything that we’re doing is great.’

Q: If Diane Colley-Urquhart can lose in a riding like that, what does it mean for the Tories?

A: It means every riding they hold is vulnerable.

Q: The Wildrose Alliance has been perceived as a rural party and you have been perceived in the past as a rural candidate. What does it mean that you won in an urban, affluent riding like Glenmore?

A: If you were to scale the ridings from Dunvegan-Central Peace to Cardston-Taber-Warner to Calgary-Glenmore, we cover all of the prairies. The only place that we don’t cover is the NDP and Liberal strongholds. To go into Edmonton-Norwood and try and go up against [provincial NDP leader] Brian Mason, I don’t think that that would be one area where we could win.

Q: Your campaign slogan was, Send Ed a Message. What was the message that voters sent him last night?

A: That they’re not happy with his policies, they’re not happy with his leadership, his governing, anything. There’s not anything when you go to the door that people say, ‘Yes, but I like this.’ No. There’s nothing.

Q: Was this a referendum on Ed Stelmach?

A: Well, it’s a double-edged sword. It was a referendum on Ed, but it was also, where can we place our votes? And there was a protest vote building in the Liberal Party if you look back the last couple of elections, and Avalon had taken a lot of the protest votes. But ours was a vote for something new. As they get to know the Wildrose Alliance and we get over all this rhetoric from media and Liberals saying what extremists we are, we’re prepared to go forward and we offer the only platform that has true principles of good governance and good economics. The other parties don’t have that.

Q: There’s an Annual General Meeting coming up for the Tories. Do you think Ed Stelmach is in any danger of losing a leadership review?

A: That was something, again, at the doors, where people said, ‘We have to keep the Tories in there, but we got to get rid of Ed.’ And I said, ‘if you want to do a leadership review on Ed, you’d better send them that message this time.’

Q: Why do they label you extremists?

A: What else can they do? They can’t attack our policies, they can’t attack our track record, that’s what fear-mongering and politics is all about.

Q: I wrote about this in Maclean’s, that the Wildrose Alliance is moving towards the centre. Do you think that your win in Cardston-Taber-Warner, which is a rural riding, and now your win in urban Calgary, is that symbolic of a shift in the party?

A: No, no, we were always there, it’s just that Calgary-Glenmore is hurting now and they were willing to look. The sad thing about politics is that we always stay put until we’re hurting. And it doesn’t matter where you look. What this is is a shift in pain. As more and more Albertans are facing the pain of premier Stelmach’s economic policies, they have to start to look. It’s human nature. We sit there if we’re happy, but if there’s pain being inflicted we’re going to move.

Q: There’s been a lot of interest in this by-election in Calgary-Glenmore, not just in Calgary or Alberta, but I think people have been looking at it across the country. Why all the interest, what gives?

A: It’s symbolic. Calgary, you can say what you want, but isn’t it kind of the heart of the business economy? And Stelmach has been attacking it from the day he won his leadership. And this is big government. It’s just out there spewing this idea that we can spend more and tax more and we’re going to look after you. And that just isn’t the Alberta way. And it certainly isn’t the Calgary way.

Q: Is it at all significant that Glenmore also overlaps with Stephen Harper’s federal riding.

A: It’s just awesome. Yes, my office will be right beside his. It’s awesome. I’ve known Stephen for a long time and it’s exciting.

Q: Can the Wildrose Alliance win the next election?

A: I’ll tell you that in about a month and a half, after Oct. 17, that’s our next big step. We need to get a leader that people can look up to and follow and that’s what it’s all about. We’ve made a big win here and we’ll see how well we choose our next leader. Because a competent leader—and we’ve got one in the race—can become the next premier at the next provincial election.

Q: Is the leadership race that important?

A: Oh, absolutely. Look what Stelmach did. Is that important or not? How did Stephane Dion do, was that important or not? How’s Michael Ignatieff doing? Is that important or not? Absolutely, the leadership’s everything.