CALGARY — The new leader of Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance says she suspects many people are hovering between her party and the governing Conservatives and she plans to give voters a good reason to move her way.
Danielle Smith won the Wildrose leadership on the weekend and is taking the helm at a time when polls suggest the party is surging in popularity at the expense of the Tories. Wildrose is a right-of-centre party which, among others things, espouses more grassroots involvement in decision-making.
Smith says she gets the sense that many people have bought memberships to both parties and are watching closely to see what happens next.
That could be behind a surprise Wildrose byelection victory last month that saw the party snag its sole seat in a Calgary constituency that had been held by the Tories for four decades, she suggested Monday.
“I think that people have been shaken loose from their traditional voting habits, and we just have to earn their trust and give them a reason to vote for us again,” she said. “What we’re going to say is we want to see the Alberta advantage back and that is going to be a message that resonates with Albertans.”
Smith downplayed suggestions that as many as 10 Tory members could cross the floor to her party. The Conservatives hold 70 of Alberta’s 83 seats.
She said she’s not counting on anyone jumping ship, but is instead focused on running a full slate of Wildrose candidates in the next election. The party has set up associations in about half the province’s ridings and is working on the others.
When asked Monday how he views Smith as a political opponent, Premier Ed Stelmach replied he’d make a decision once her party rolls out its policies.
“It’s a new party,” he said. “I’ll just say congratulations and see what happens from here.”
The premier seemed a little amused that Smith used her victory speech to say, “Ed Stelmach, you haven’t even begun to imagine what’s about to hit you.” He told reporters in Edmonton that “usually when you get into a hockey game or something you get all pumped for it.”
Stelmach said his Progressive Conservatives still have a sizable majority.
“People gave us a strong mandate to do what’s right for all Albertans and we’re continuing to do that.”
Talk about Stelmach’s own future is growing as the premier gets ready to face a leadership review next month.
Three years ago, Stelmach’s predecessor, Ralph Klein, stepped down after getting 55 per cent support in a secret vote held every other year.
Klein told The Canadian Press recently that Stelmach should resign if he gets less than 70 per cent support. But Smith refused to weigh in on whether the premier needs a specific number to survive. “The fact that the premier might or might not get a ringing endorsement on Nov. 7 from his party is irrelevant to our party members and it’s irrelevant to me.
“He needs a ringing endorsement from Albertans right now, and he isn’t getting it.”
Smith said she hopes to run in the next election in the Calgary riding where she lives, but would consider seeking a seat elsewhere if there were an earlier byelection. She acknowledged that the majority of her party’s support is concentrated in southern and central Alberta. She plans to soon tour the rest of the province to sell her message in person.
Smith insisted the Wildrose Alliance is a big-tent party that can attract Albertans from all walks of life, not just fiscal and social conservatives. She plans to meet with the executive in the coming weeks to hammer out policy objectives for an announcement in November.
On the campaign trail, Smith challenged provincial changes to oil royalties that she said have sent investment dollars elsewhere.
She promised to push individual property rights and to change health care to ensure providers are paid per job rather than in a lump sum. On abortion, Smith said she is pro-choice and the procedure should be publicly paid for, but only if a woman is suffering hardship or is in special circumstances, not when it’s used as birth control.