EDMONTON — Danielle Smith, the new leader of Alberta’s surging right-wing Wildrose Alliance, gets down to business Monday, building up a party machine while pinning down a premier soon facing his very own day of decision.
Smith, who won the leadership at a weekend convention, said the short-term goal is to nail down the planks of their policy platform and field a full slate of candidates for the next election, which is at least two years off.
“We have to focus on getting all of our constituency associations set up with presidents and executives and members and fundraising committees because we need to be ready,” said Smith.
“We’re not going to get caught flat-footed as we did the last couple of times. We’re going to be ready to run a full slate of candidates as soon as 2011.”
The 38-year-old Calgarian — a former journalist, TV current affairs show host and outspoken business leader — will hold her first news conference in the southern Alberta city Monday.
She and her party are riding a wave of popularity in recent weeks after candidate Paul Hinman defeated the Tories in a Calgary-Glenmore byelection. It had been a riding held by Premier Ed Stelmach’s team for 37 years.
It is their only seat in the 83-seat legislature, compared with 70 for the Tories. And despite recent polls that put Wildrose second to the Tories in popularity, political observers note recent Alberta history is replete with rightist parties that are stars one minute and footnotes the next.
“That’s what the Wildrose Alliance is right now — a party that has done well in several opinion polls and managed to win a byelection against a government that seems to be floundering and bumbling,” said Keith Brownsey, political scientist at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“It doesn’t have constituency organizations in half of Alberta’s 83 ridings. It doesn’t have the war chest of the Progressive Conservatives, and certainly doesn’t have the election experience.”
With vague policies of less government, less taxes, more individual rights and freedoms, the party can have broad appeal, he said. But that changes with Smith because supporters and critics can now point to her track record.
On the campaign trail, Smith challenged provincial changes to oil royalties that she said have sent investment dollars elsewhere.
She promises to push individual property rights to the top of the agenda — no land expropriated without due consultation and compensation.
She wants to revamp health care to match models where health providers are paid per job done rather than in a lump sum.
She wants to dump Alberta’s multibillion-dollar carbon capture and storage project as a political boondoggle. Carbon capture, still in its infancy, would see greenhouse gases stored underground but at a hefty cost.
On abortion, Smith said that she is pro-choice and that it should be publicly paid for, but only under hardship or special circumstances — not when it’s used as birth control.
“She’s a leader with a very right-wing track record,” said Brownsey.
“The party may be able to hold the 22 per cent (support) they have in the opinion polls now, but I don’t think they’ll be able to grow much beyond that, unless they moderate. And I don’t think that’s likely.”
With Smith elected, Alberta’s political spotlight now shifts to Stelmach, who has been criticized inside and outside his party of late for lack of leadership and vision.
In three weeks, party faithful meet in Red Deer to cast, in secret, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on his leadership. Three years ago, Stelmach’s predecessor, Ralph Klein, received an underwhelming 55 per cent support in the twice-yearly mandatory party exercise and quit.
In the fallout from the Calgary byelection loss, some party old guard members have publicly criticized exorbitant payouts to administrators, the government’s handling of the health system and an economy on track this year to record a $7-billion deficit.
To shore up support, Stelmach went on provincewide TV last week to promise the deficit would be gone in three years, and to ask public sector workers like teachers and nurses to voluntarily freeze their wages to help out.
Stelmach’s team also announced pay cuts totalling 5.4 per cent for him and 3.2 per cent to cabinet members, which served to rekindle taxpayer anger from over a year ago, when the same cabinet voted itself pay hikes of 30 to 34 per cent.
Stelmach remains Canada’s highest-paid premier at about $214,000 a year, according to the Canadian Taxpayers’ Federation.
Political scientist Doreen Barrie said Smith’s win sharpens the thorn in the Tories’ side because she will be a credible, articulate voice on their side of the political spectrum.
“They will successfully hammer away at Stelmach and the Conservatives on the boondoggles, these obscene bonuses, cabinet giving itself a huge pay hike,” said Barrie, with the University of Calgary.
She said Stelmach has also been plagued by high-profile flip-flops, such as hiking liquor and beer taxes in the recent budget to bring in an extra $180 million in revenue, then rescinding them soon after because Stelmach was uncomfortable with the idea ideologically.
When backbencher Guy Boutilier complained earlier this year the government was abandoning a planned long-term care home in his riding, Stelmach booted him from caucus. Months later, when backbencher Kyle Fawcett criticized Stelmach over the byelection loss, he was allowed to stay.
“This is where leadership comes in,” said Barrie.
Recent polls have suggested Stelmach’s personal popularity has plunged from 57 per cent approval two years ago to 57 per cent disapproval now.