A recent poll suggested that the Progressive Conservatives (unchanged at 38 per cent) will form a solid but slimmer majority government with 57 seats (down from 72 seats) after the spring election.
The poll also suggests that the Wildrose Party (up six per cent in one month to 29 per cent) will become the Official Opposition with 17 seats in the Alberta legislature in 2012.
These are the bare facts as they appear in the dog days of winter in the province, but are they an accurate read about the outcome of the spring election? A lot will depend upon what promises to be a vicious battle for the premier’s crown here in Alberta.
A few things are already evident: the retirement of numerous veteran Tory MLAs, some of whom have held senior positions within the caucus, is not a good sign for the party. The 2011 defeat of long-term Tory loyalist and presumptive front-runner Gary Mar by Alison Redford for party leader was the second consecutive leadership race in which an old-school candidate was blindsided by a virtual unknown in a runoff vote.
The fallout from the latest race won by Redford may have dulled some of the Tory veterans’ enthusiasm for a party that is clearly in a transitional phase from centre right to centre left in its political compass.
Redford has taken careful steps during her post-victory run as interim premier, but she has apparently repaid provincial labour union members who bought party memberships and ensured her victory in the leadership race with restored funding to education and health.
The fact that she kept her campaign promises will enhance her image with the rank and file provincial civil servants in Alberta, but will her centre-left approach play well in corporate Alberta, particularly the energy sector after their misadventures with Ed Stelmach?
So far, Premier Redford is a hit in left-leaning Edmonton but she does not play well in corporate Calgary, home of most of the major players in the Canadian oil business.
Redford’s lukewarm and very measured response to the Keystone XL pipeline issue does not define her as a champion of the oil industry, so her virtual silence on this critical issue has not gone unnoticed by the big boys in Alberta’s boardrooms.
Redford appears to have hitched her cart to motherhood issues like health and education, along with a controversial impaired driving bill that will penalize Alberta drivers under the legal alcohol limit. The moves are designed to soften the image of the Tories as a rigid right wing party with no social conscience, but they do little to appease the Albertans who wonder how this province can spend more per capita than any other province on its residents and still not deliver Cadillac services.
Throw in the thousands of small businesses in the hospitality sector that will be adversely affected by her .05 legislation and questions are already being asked about Redford’s direction as premier.
The one positive is the fact that Redford is a relative newcomer to the Tory caucus, and it may actually work in her favour as the party gets attacked for a long list of ill-advised party contributions through Alberta-taxpayer funded operations like AHS subsidiaries and post-secondary institutions. Redford may be able to detach herself from the damage of this unethical practice, but the cost of 41 years in government is a firmly entrenched system with many facets of mutual back-scratching from one party brand.
The numbers show Redford (39 per cent) and Wildrose’s Danielle Smith (40 per cent) in a virtual dead heat in the current leadership popularity poll of Albertans. Both women are well-suited to champion the cause of female leaders in provincial politics, but they differ in political ideologies.
Smith is a fiscal small “c” conservative/ libertarian while Redford aligns her political views with the aforementioned left-of-centre political sphere with little indication that she believes in less government based upon her brief track record thus far as premier.
One thing is very certain: a spring election will leave little time for Redford to redefine her political direction beyond her first budget — an event that will likely decide the election’s campaign issues and possible outcome.
Another thing is very clear: this election will be a lot closer than the 57 to 17 seats predicted by the latest polls.
Jim Sutherland is a local freelance columnist. He can be reached at email@example.com.