The increasingly damaged body of Alberta politics is perilously close to becoming completely dismembered.
Danielle Smith and the Wildrose Alliance seem intent on ensuring that happens, and equally intent on being the ones who get to put the pieces together again.
Wildrose has created a new tide of politics in Alberta: an aggressive, uncompromising and truculent approach to upending the status quo; and a confident, even brash, belief in both their ideas and their ability to create a better future.
Step one is to put the ruling Progressive Conservatives under fire at every opportunity. Wildrose doesn’t waste a great deal of time on other opponents at the centre or the left of the political spectrum.
A fulsome barrage of criticism of the Tory way is delivered by the Wildrose weekly and sometimes daily. Smith and the Wildrose are fiercely aggressive in their condemnation of the Tories. In introducing an alternate budget last week, Smith referred to “spending-addicted governments.”
This week, at a gathering that drew disaffected Tories and big-dollar businessmen in Edmonton, she declared “the PC culture is unreformable. We don’t just need a new premier, we need a new government.” The irony — that the crowd included ex-Tory cabinet ministers like Lyle Oberg and Ernie Isley, former Tory supporters and even Ralph Klein’s father Phil — should be lost on no one.
Step two is to offer up a portfolio of ideas for reform, from health care to social program deliverance to the size of government.
And Smith has plenty of ideas.
On health care, she suggests a system that puts the dollars into the hands of patients and creates a competitive delivery structure. Wildrose maintains that such a system will improve and quicken service, and cut costs. To outsiders, it sounds like privatization, driven by profit. In fact, it looks a lot like a balloon that Ralph Klein tried unsuccessfully to float while he was premier.
She talks glowingly about the Big Society movement of new United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron, which proposes that government download social programs to communities.
“Rather than put all our faith in central planners in a remote government bureaucracy to sort out all these problems, maybe each of us in our own communities should be looking at ways we can lend a land to help,” Smith told the Edmonton audience this week.
That’s a notion the Conservatives have been pursuing for a decade or more, as funding for social programs disappeared, along with the bureaucratic supports for those programs. The outcome — communities and non-profits under increasing duress and the finite local donation pool drying up — is neither acceptable now nor worthy of future pursuit.
Smith talks about wasteful big government and the need to streamline bureaucracy and spending. It’s a good notion, but it requires a deft touch and continued monitoring. The Klein years featured aggressive cutting of government services without a clear vision of the end game, other than to save money. That doesn’t serve Albertans, who want value for their taxes, not tax cuts (we remain the least taxed of all provinces).
She talks about setting us up for the future by curtailing spending now. But sometimes cutting spending — Wildrose proposes to cut the planned $6.6-billion budget for schools, roads and hospitals in the next year by one-third — means we are unprepared for future growth. We’ve just emerged from a period, driven by Klein’s silly notions of fiscal responsibility, that crippled our ability to handle future growth.
Do Albertans truly want Smith and Wildrose to come to our rescue, and will what they offer be a significant upgrade on the current governance offered by the Progressive Conservatives?
Probably not, based on the Klein-like vision that Smith is offering at the moment.
Certainly we need new leadership, a fresh vision and renewed vigour in government. Premier Ed Stelmach’s ruling party is tired and uninspired.
But what have we gained if a rebuilt Alberta looks eerily like the one we just left behind?
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.