On April 23d, Albertans will be voting in their first competitive provincial election in nearly twenty years, and arguably their most important since the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta first came to power in 1971. Both of the leading contenders in this election represent significant change. Though she leads a party that has been in office for over 40 years, PC premier Alison Redford is offering a clear break from the past; a centre-left government that would play a much more conciliatory role on the national stage. The upstart Wildrose Party would move Alberta to the right and challenge the Canadian status quo on issues ranging from equalization to resource development. We believe that Albertans, and all Canadians, would be best served by the election of a Wildrose majority government.
The Progressive Conservatives have served Alberta well during most of their 41 years in office. The Lougheed government of the 1970s and 80s made the province into an energy superpower, created the Alberta Heritage Fund to preserve some of the oil wealth for future generations and stood up to Pierre Trudeau’s destructive National Energy Program. In the 1990s, under Ralph Klein, the Tories balanced the provincial budget and made Alberta the first province in Canada to pay down its debt and introduce a flat rate income tax. The effects of Klein’s policies combined with an increase in world oil prices to produce over a decade of unprecedented prosperity and growth.
Since then, however, the Tories have lost their focus and lost touch with their basic principles as a party. During Klein’s last years in office, they raised spending to a level that is higher than Québec’s on a per capita basis. His successor, the hapless Ed Stelmach, only accelerated the trend and made the cardinal mistake of raising resource royalties just a few months before the beginning of the 2008 recession. When oil prices dropped, investors and businesses fled to other jurisdictions, while Albertans found themselves with a multibillion dollar provincial deficit and the closest thing to a full recession since the beginning of the 1990s. The economy recovered, but the PCs lost their image as competent managers and could no longer be considered “conservative” in any meaningful sense.
The rise of the Wildrose was made possible by the Tory drift. Formed by disenchanted provincial conservatives looking for an alternative, it enjoyed single digit support and won no seats until 2009, when it won a Calgary area by-election and chose former journalist and policy analyst Danielle Smith as its leader. Since then it has risen to first place in the polls and seems likely to form at least a minority government after the election this Monday.
Danielle Smith represents a breath of fresh air for small c conservatives and libertarians. Though a libertarian on most social issues, Smith is a strong fiscal conservative and a defender of individual rights. She is the first provincial conservative leader in as long as anyone can remember who is both articulate and charismatic. If elected on Monday, she will be the first unapologetically right wing Canadian premier since Mike Harris left office a decade ago.
Under her leadership, Wildrose has adopted a credible, populist agenda based on balanced budgets, family tax relief, private sector health reform, and strong protections for individual and property rights. It is one of the few parties in any province that has been willing to seriously challenge the “nanny state” tendency to criminalize all smoking and alcohol consumption as well as promise to put an end to the offensive restriction of free speech by the various federal and provincial Human Rights Commissions. Wildrose has also been more vocal in defense of Alberta’s oil sands than previous governments, and more willing to call for reforms to the federal equalization program which transfers billions of dollars a year from the oil producing western provinces to support the governments of the economically depressed, high tax and spending jurisdictions in the East. The Wildrose agenda is one which corresponds to the views of the Herald editorial board, and we are eager to see it implemented.
Wildrose is not the only party offering change in the upcoming election. Alison Redford would also represent a break from the status quo, albeit of a different kind. A former human rights lawyer and Red Tory in the Joe Clark mold, Redford could be accurately described as Alberta’s first Liberal premier. As justice minister in the Stelmach government, she authored draconian and arguably unconstitutional legislation allowing for any vehicle to be confiscated without trial or due process if the driver blows 0.05 on a breathalyzer test. As a candidate for her party’s leadership, she won by proposing large spending and hiring increases which earned her the support of Alberta teachers unions. As premier she has continued the irresponsible spending of the Stelmach years, openly mused about a tax increase, and outlined an election platform that proposes more new spending than those of the Alberta Liberals and the NDP. In federal provincial relations, she has been more conciliatory than any of her predecessors, musing about a “national energy strategy” and doing virtually nothing to counter environmentalist criticism of Alberta’s oil sands, which are more responsibly exploited than the oilfields of most other petroleum producing states.
Redford’s political success up to this point hasn’t been a fluke. Out of province migration, urbanization and younger demographics may be pushing Alberta somewhat to the left of where it was even a decade ago. This trend was made most visible by the election of Naheed Nenshi, a social democratic professor of “non-profit management” as mayor of Calgary. Like Redford, Nenshi leans towards higher taxes and spending, and constantly reminds voters of his desire to make Calgary more hospitable to the young professionals of the so called “creative class”.
The trouble with this approach is that it can only work so long, even under the best of circumstances. In making things more hospitable for themselves, the “creative classes” in the media, the bureaucracy and academe have a way of making things less hospitable for everyone else. For much of the 20th century, California was to the United States what Alberta is to Canada; an economic powerhouse based on a booming high tech sector and abundant natural resources. But the left leaning politics that could be indulged when things were going well ended up cutting off access to on and offshore oil and gas, strangling the economy with high taxes and regulations, and restricting individual rights with arcane public health and environmental regulations. As a result, California is nearly bankrupt while businesses and investment have fled towards lower tax jurisdictions.
Albertans don’t need to look to the south to see the dangers of this kind of approach. They merely need to remember the damage done by the socialist National Energy Program in the 1980s, and the rapid decline of their economy and provincial revenues in the first years of the Stelmach government. There is a popular bumper sticker in Alberta that says “God give me another boom, and I promise I won’t piss it away”. Alberta’s resource based economy is more fragile than it often appears. A combination of lower oil prices, provincial leaders like Redford and Nenshi who practice the “non-profit management” philosophy of government, and federal environmental regulators swooping down to kill the golden goose could easily “piss away” the current boom and send Alberta down the same path as California.
A Wildrose victory on Monday would be a positive result for Albertans and for all Canadians, since our continued prosperity depends so much on the jobs and revenue produced by the province’s oil industry. The establishment media, most notably the Globe and Mail and the CBC, have greeted the prospect of a Wildrose government with fear and derision, pouncing on any evidence of social conservatism and contrasting the defensive, provincialist “little Alberta” message that Smith supposedly represents with the pan-Canadian “Big Alberta” envisioned by Premier Redford. In fact Smith is proposing a pan-Canadian “Big Alberta”; one which isn’t afraid to defend the energy sector or criticize the wastefulness of provinces like Québec which use equalization payments to live above their means, and which seeks to export the values and principles of small c conservative government to the rest of the country. Smith’s “Big Alberta” may not be the Globe and Mail’s, which unsurprisingly resembles Toronto, but it corresponds perfectly with the values and priorities of the Prince Arthur Herald. We are proud to give our endorsement to the Wildrose Party.