Alberta Wildrose: Election 2012 Coming Up Roses After 40 Years Of Tory Rule?

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DANIELLE SMITH ALBERTA ELECTION
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith waves to supporters as she walks through a green house during a campaign stop at Lilys Greenhouse in Sturgeon County, Alta., on Thursday April 19, 2012. Her party, made up largely of disgruntled former Tories, has had momentum for much of the campaign. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson. | CP

EDMONTON - Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives defied the pollsters Monday, winning a 12th consecutive majority government that will see them enter the record books as the unconquerable colossus of Canadian politics.

"Oh my! Oh my!" Redford told supporters at a rally in Calgary after the final vote totals were announced.

"Today, Alberta, you spoke, and you spoke loudly.

"And I want you to know I heard you."

Redford said the election was about a choice "to put up walls or build bridges."

"It was a choice about Alberta's future, and Albertans chose to build bridges."

Her Tories have been in power close to 41 years. By the time their new mandate ends, it will be 45.

They will then stand alone, surpassing the 1943-1985 Ontario PCs (42 years) and the Nova Scotia Liberals of 1882-1925 (43 years).

Redford's team took 61 of 87 seats compared with 17 for their Wildrose rival on the right.

The victory flew in the face of polls that had Redford's party trailing the Wildrose and its leader Danielle Smith for much of the campaign.

Redford's team appeared to benefit from soft Liberal supporters who switched to the Tories in a strategic swing.

In the final week there were suggestions homophobic and racist comments made by two Wildrose party candidates would translate into an intolerant government restricting the rights of women and minorities.

PC supporters took to the airwaves and social media to urge moderates to switch their votes to block a Wildrose win.

A website was even created featuring testimonials from young Albertans. One man said he would rather have rodents eat his face than vote PC, but was voting Tory anyway to block the Wildrose.

Raj Sherman's Liberal party, which had been the official Opposition heading into the campaign, saw its vote collapse into single digits with just five ridings, giving Tories back the vote support it had lost to the Wildrose.

Redford, speaking to reporters after her victory speech, reiterated that she doesn't rely on polls.

"The only poll that matters is this election one."

Smith won a seat in the legislature for the first time in the Highwood constituency south of Calgary. Her party dominated in the old Tory rural strongholds in southern Alberta plus some ridings in Calgary. They were shut out in Edmonton and northern Alberta.

Smith remained upbeat in her concession speech to supporters in High River.

"Tonight we found out that change might take a little longer than we thought," said Smith.

"We wanted to do better and we expected to do better. Am I surprised? Am I disappointed? Yeah. Am I discouraged? Not a chance.

"Albertans have decided that Wildrose might need some time to establish ourselves, and I relish the opportunity."

Brian Mason's NDP doubled the party caucus to four — all in Edmonton.

Mason said he was thrilled at the outcome for his party, but he was also quick to congratulate Redford on her victory.

"I never thought that (overwhelming win) was going to happen, but you can't count the PCs out," he said.

The Tories' previous 11 majorities have been measured in large or larger majorities. The last time they were threatened was by a resurgent Liberal party in 1993. But under new leader Ralph Klein, the Tories took 51 of 83 seats to 32 for the Liberals and the dynasty rolled on.

Redford was re-elected in her Calgary-Elbow seat. She was chosen last fall by party members as leader, but now becomes Alberta's first elected female premier.

Tory cabinet ministers Doug Horner, Thomas Lukaszuk, Diana McQueen, Jeff Johnson, Dave Hancock, Verlyn Olson, Frank Oberle, Cal Dallas, Fred Horne, Heather Klimchuk, Greg Weadick, Thomas Lukaszuk, Doug Griffiths, Manmeet Bhullar, George VanderBurg and Jonathan Denis were all re-elected.

Redford will need a new energy minister, however. Ted Morton went down to defeat, as did Tourism Minister Jack Hayden, Agriculture Minister Evan Berger, and Transportation Minister Ray Danyluk.

Political scientist Harold Jansen said the Tories peaked at the right time.

Jansen said the Wildrose, after making announcement after announcement in the early days of the campaign, found itself without anything to offer in the final stretch, and ended up on the defensive while the Tories gained ground.

He agreed that the Liberal collapse benefited the PCs. In the last days, Jansen said, many of the Tory campaign announcements weren't unlike those of the Liberals.

"If you closed your eyes and changed the voice, it started to sound like the Liberals," said Jansen with the University of Lethbridge.

"I think we've seen a restructuring of the party system where the PCs have claimed the centre."

Sherman's party took five seats, including his own in a tight race in Edmonton-Meadowlark. He congratulated the other leaders and Redford.

"They offered a good vision, and we agreed with many parts of that vision," he said.

Redford, who took over as premier six months ago from Ed Stelmach, has some fences to mend.

She ran on her record of spending increases and no taxes, promising millions of dollars to build more schools and family health-care clinics. She also promised to put up an extra $3 billion over the next two decades to further develop oilsands products and protect the environment while not raising royalties.

The Tories were taken to task for granting themselves the richest salaries for provincial politicians in the country – about $163,000 on average. But it didn’t end there. Over the last decade, the party quietly and broadly changed the eligibility rules allowing more than 20 retiring politicians to walk away this year with six-figure golden handshakes.

To top it off, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation reported last month that members of the government’s largest legislature committee, mostly Tories, had been receiving $1,000 a month but had not met in over three years.

Redford stopped the bleeding early in the campaign, promising to end the six-figure handouts and ordering her members who sat on the no-meet committee to pay it all back.

With a week to go, polls suggested the Wildrose was headed for a majority. But then Smith's party got hung up in the razor wire of social issues and she had to fight off critics who suggested her party had a hidden agenda.

The criticism firmed up around the issue of conscience rights — allowing civil servants to opt out of doing jobs they morally object to, such as marrying gay couples or prescribing birth control.

When there was a suggestion that her party could use a citizens-initiated referendum to end public funding for abortion, Smith disclosed that she was, in fact, pro-choice and pro-gay marriage.

As the campaign entered its final week, Wildrose candidates entered the spotlight. A year-old blog surfaced from Edmonton candidate Allan Hunsperger suggesting gay people would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire" if they didn't change their lifestyles. He pulled the comments down and Smith stood by him.

Wildrose Calgary candidate Ron Leech was forced to apologize for suggesting in a radio interview that he had an advantage in his constituency because he is white and could speak for everyone. Again, Smith stood by her candidate.

Both Hunsperger and Leech were defeated.

Smith herself was shouted down at a leaders forum last week when she questioned the science of climate change.

Environmentalists feared that a Smith government that still didn't believe in climate change would not push hard to clean up toxic emissions from the oilsands.

The Liberals took to calling the election a choice between Tory "bullies" and Wildrose "bigots."

Smith said in the end voters just weren't ready to take the giant leap her party was asking of them. She also acknowledged the Wildrose stumbled in the final days.

"I think we had a few self-inflicted wounds in the last week of the campaign, and maybe that was enough to make people pause and say, 'Hmmm ... maybe this group needs a little more seasoning,'" she said.

"I know that we do have to do a little more work to be able to earn the trust of Albertans. We knew it was a monumental task to try to go from four seats to government within 2 1/2 years of me becoming leader."

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