Endgame for Alberta Tories

The provincial Progressive Conservatives under Ed Stelmach face political oblivion.

Alberta’s 2010 provincial budget came with the title Striking the Right Balance, a reflection of the government’s decision to shovel $1.7 billion into health care while cutting $1.3 billion elsewhere. But the title also hinted at the Progressive Conservative government’s precarious position. Striking the right balance is, after all, particularly important when you’re teetering on the edge of collapse. The Conservatives face dwindling popularity, unhappy supporters and a challenge from the fledgling Wildrose Alliance. Unless they rebound, the Progressive Conservatives will see their 39-year reign come to a sputtering end.

This makes for political theatre, but driving the drama are serious questions about the province’s oil and gas economy. The party’s popularity took a significant hit in 2007, when Premier Ed Stelmach announced plans to hike resource royalties by 20%. Matters worsened for the Tories last year when the province posted its first deficit since 1994. A series of smaller incidents, like the booting of a caucus member for raising concerns about health care in his riding, further fuelled the decline in support for the government.

All this has buoyed the popularity of the Wildrose Alliance, which has positioned itself as defender of the oil industry and a voice of financial restraint.

“Albertans will give the government a free reign for a very long time, as long as they sense the government is taking care of things in a way that is basically sound,” says Danielle Smith, the Wildrose Alliance’s leader. “What they won’t tolerate for very long is incompetence. And what we’ve seen over the past few years is a mishandling of our royalty framework, a bungled attempt to fix it that has all shattered investor confidence.”

The Alliance has only three members in Alberta’s 83-seat legislature, compared with the Conservatives’ 72 seats. But Alberta has a history of electing underdogs. In its political cycle, a party takes power, stays for years and is punted by a group of upstarts. In 1935, Social Credit tossed the United Farmers of Alberta; in 1971, the Conservatives ousted Social Credit. “We blow up the place and then go to sleep for 40 years,” says Ken Chapman, a political strategist in Edmonton.

Some say the Conservatives could still reinvent themselves, but no one disputes change is afoot. “We’ve gone through these periods before, and we seem to be on the cusp of the next one,” says Nicholas Gafuik of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, a right-leaning non-profit group.

An Angus Reid opinion poll released in December found only 25% of voters supported the Tories, putting them in a tie for second with the Liberals. The Wildrose Alliance came first, with 39% of decided voters.

The Alliance won a byelection in September and bolstered its caucus further when two Conservatives crossed the floor. The party’s surging popularity has forced the government to rethink both its policies and political strategy. The two parties have become increasingly indistinguishable in some areas. Bothnow oppose Ottawa’s plan to create a national securities regulator and muse about establishing Alberta’s own pension plan. Within the next month, the Conservatives will likely slash resource royalties as part of an overall business competitiveness review.

With the government’s strategy over the past few months apparently focused on undermining the Wildrose Alliance by stealing from its agenda, many had expected the Tories would further woo disaffected right-wing voters with deep spending cuts in this year’s budget, which was unveiled on Feb. 9. Instead, Ted Morton, the finance minister, presented a budget that veered toward the centre, hiking spending by 5.3%, with most of the new money going to health care. The budget projects a deficit of $4.7 billion. (Morton did not respond to interview requests.)

This centrist approach was decried by the Wildrose Alliance, which proposed $2.9 billion in spending cuts to halve the deficit. But observers say the health-care spending addressed a common complaint among voters, while a promised tax freeze was meant to appease the business community.

The speed and strength of Alberta’s economic recovery will not only determine the Conservatives’ chance of re-election but also have a profound influence on Canada as a whole. Smith argues the Conservatives have failed to adequately explain how vital the oil and gas industry – including the much-maligned oilsands – are to the economic strength of the country. Oilsands development could generate $51 billion in revenue for the federal government over the next two decades, according to the Canadian Energy Research Institute.

“Alberta’s going to get the lion’s share, but our Canadian friends in other provinces are going to get benefits too,” Smith says.

Observers say the Wildrose Alliance lacks the riding associations, candidates and policies needed to challenge the government. “They haven’t demonstrated that they can transform the wave of dissatisfaction into concrete policies,” says Chaldeans Mensah, a political scientist at Grant MacEwan College in Edmonton. Smith concedes that her party has plenty of organizational work to do before the next election, which could come as early as next year. Others are attempting to rally left-leaning voters in the province. Chapman, a former Progressive Conservative, is part of a coalition of “progressives” known as Reboot Alberta. “We’re a young, cosmopolitan, educated province,” Chapman says. “People who think tomorrow will reflect yesterday are making a mistake.”

For her part, Smith knows that Alberta’s political history bodes well for her party, but the speculation that the Wildrose Alliance will become Alberta’s next natural governing party is premature. “We’re not trying to set out to create a new dynasty,” she says, “We’re just setting out to create a party that can kick these guys out.”