In Alberta, a whole new ball game

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The Gazette, Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The surprise victory of Alison Redford in the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership race signals a left-right realignment in the politics of the country's richest province, one that will leave federal Alberta Conservatives deeply divided between supporting Redford or Danielle Smith, leader of the right-wing Wildrose Party. It is also a significant change in the dynamic of the Canadian federation itself.

Redford is a Red Tory. How red? Back in her days of Tory youth politics, contemporaries said there were three hues of red Tory: "red, redder and Redford." She's from the Joe Clark wing of the old Progressive Conservative Party, and it doesn't come any more Red Tory than that.

How did she do it, coming from 20 points behind frontrunner Gary Mar in the first ballot two weeks ago, to overtake him by 51.1 to 48.9 per cent on the third ballot last Saturday?

She mastered the process, she had a better ground game, she got her message out through social media, and she made two strategic plays that proved decisive.

Leadership races in the Alberta Conservative Party are a one-member, one-vote affair. If there's no winner on the first ballot, three names go forward to a second ballot two weeks later. But the second ballot is a preferential one, on which members indicate their second choice. When Doug Horner was eliminated on the second ballot, more than 70 per cent of his supporters moved to Redford, vaulting her over Mar into first place on the third ballot.

This has happened before, in 2006, when front-runner Jim Dinning was overtaken by the lightly regarded Ed Stelmach.

There's another unusual feature of Alberta Conservative leadership politics: candidates are allowed to sell memberships right up until showtime, right outside voting stations, conferring a huge advantage to the team with the best ground game.

Redford's core message was that she would rescind $100 million of cuts to the education budget, and do so within days of taking office. That got the attention of teachers, who signed up thousands of their friends as party members via social media such as Facebook and Twitter. That was enough to move Redford from 20 per cent on the first ballot to 41 per cent on the second, drawing nearly even with Mar.

Then in a candidates' debate last week, knowing perfectly well she wouldn't be eliminated in the preferential ballot, she said she'd be endorsing Horner in the event she was dropped. So of course, most of Horner's voters went to her.

It was the master stroke of the campaign, and the guy behind it, Stephen Carter, also ran last year's socialmedia-savvy campaign for Naheed Nenshi, now mayor of Calgary. From insurgency to incumbency.

All of which puts a decidedly progressive face on the politics of Canada's most conservative province. In next year's election, the two leading candidates for premier, Redford and Smith, will be women. The Liberal leader, Raj Sherman, is an Indianborn doctor. And the mayor of the province's largest city, the motor of its economy, is a Muslim.

For Danielle Smith, Redford's unexpected victory not only means a clear choice between left and right; it will also allow her to move Wildrose closer to the centre, where elections are won and lost.

It's exactly 40 years since Peter Lougheed's Conservatives swept to power in Alberta. Lougheed and his successors - Don Getty, Ralph Klein and Stelmach - have all run moderate governments. Supported by oil and gas revenues, successive regimes have made impressive investments in health care, education and infrastructure. Redford promises more of the same, though she doesn't say how she'll balance the budget. (Yes, oil-rich Alberta has been running deficits since 2007.)

It should be quite a campaign between Redford, known to be whip-smart, and Smith, known for her impressive message discipline. Unless Stephen Harper orders his Alberta caucus to stay neutral, most of them would naturally gravitate to Smith. Smith and Redford were both guests at Harper's annual Stampede barbecue in July, a must-do event in Calgary.

In terms of the federation, Alberta's wealth automatically makes it an important player, but Redford may lower Alberta's voice on how it's on the outside looking at "havenot" provinces such as Quebec providing superior services such as cheap university fees and $7-a-day child care thanks to equalization payments largely funded by "have" provinces like Alberta.

But don't expect Redford to be silent on the Quebec and Ontario governments scolding Alberta on the environmental effect of the oilsands, when billions of dollars of economic benefits, and thousands of jobs, go to those very provinces.

Generational change, of one kind or another, is coming to Alberta. But in the politics of the Canadian federation, some themes are constant.

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