POLITICS
09/03/2011 10:00 EDT | Updated 11/03/2011 05:12 EDT

Alberta Conservative Leadership Hopefuls Grabbing Onto Wildrose Platforms

CP File

EDMONTON - A year ago, Danielle Smith of Alberta's opposition Wildrose Party told a packed room at the Capri Centre in Red Deer the Progressive Conservative government's land-grab legislation has got to go.

The crowd cheered.

On Thursday, Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Rick Orman told a packed room at the Capri Centre in Red Deer that the Progressive Conservative land-grab legislation has got to go.

The crowd cheered.

It was a stark example of how, in the party race to replace departing Premier Ed Stelmach, many of the six candidates have either adopted — or co-opted — the critical wedge platforms of their fiercest rival in a bid to get over the top.

Smith, in an interview, says she's OK with that and that for every hole plugged with a Wildrose solution, another leak will surely sprout in the Tory policy dike.

"That is exactly the role that an opposition party should play, putting forward positive ideas, effective ideas to be able to change the way the government works," Smith says. "I think we've done our job.

"The question will be: After the race is over, are they going to walk their talk? I'm not holding my breath."

The PC leadership race is now entering the home stretch and the Tories and Wildrose are, if recent polls are to be believed, going in opposite directions.

The Conservatives are rebounding in popularity at the expense of their right-of centre rivals due mainly, it's believed, to a bump from the leadership contest and the imminent departure of the polarizing Stelmach.

At the start of the year, polls put the two parties in a virtual dead heat for the hearts and minds of Albertans.

The Wildrose had been cutting deep into Tory support, capitalizing on discontent, particularly in rural areas, with recently passed legislation governing land use and power lines.

The land-use legislation, passed in 2009 but still known informally by its bill number, 36, has led to town hall meetings jammed with angry residents who say it gives cabinet too much power to arbitrarily take their property without adequate compensation and recourse through the courts.

The government passed revisions in the recent spring session of the legislature, but opponents say the issue remains grey.

Orman, an energy minister under former premier Don Getty, has called it the No. 1 issue alienating voters and party members alike, promising to repeal it if he becomes premier.

Fellow Tory candidates Alison Redford, Gary Mar, Doug Griffiths, and Doug Horner have gone on record demanding changes to fix the concerns.

Candidate Ted Morton shepherded the legislation as the former minister of sustainable resource development. He says the revised act has resolved the criticisms and even gone a step further by broadening the definition of what can be claimed for compensation.

The Wildrose Party has also made inroads over the Electric Statutes Amendment Act, which also passed in 2009 and is better known for its bill number, 50.

Bill 50 fast-tracks power line construction, which the government says is needed to avoid future brownouts.

The law gives cabinet unilateral authority to order up billions of dollars in power line construction — without public oversight on whether the lines are needed — if cabinet decides the lines are critical.

Critics of all parties say this clears the way for a tremendous overbuild of lines with consumers picking up the price-tag.

At this week's Red Deer debate, all six candidates vowed they would fix it in one form or another, led by Morton.

Morton, who quit his post as finance minister to run for the leadership, echoed the Wildrose promise to repeal Bill 50 if given the chance.

"Why do we exempt five large transmission projects from an independent needs assessment?" Morton told the 500 people in the audience.

"It should be done. When it is done, it will show not all are needed.

He said the massive line construction is premised on high gas prices and low coal prices.

"That was true in 2006-07. It's not true today," he said.

Mar, Griffiths, and Redford, who quit her post as justice minister to run, said they'd make changes to ensure the public has some say into whether the lines are needed.

"There has to be some public consultation process," said Griffiths, a longtime backbencher from the Battle River-Wainwright constituency.

Horner, the former advanced education minister who quit to run for the top job, said Bill 50 is fine and that cabinet still has the authority to order up competitive bidding and a public needs assessment.

"Bill 50 is not the issue. It's what are we doing underneath it that's the issue," said Horner, prompting Mar to reply, "You actually should have asked those questions before you passed the bill."

The Tory turnabout on some of its flagship legislation has underscored the delicate balancing act some of the candidates must walk in a political system where caucus dissent is traditionally kept in-house with all caucus members publicly supporting a decision once its made.

That has allowed Orman, who has been out of politics for 18 years, to relish in the role of chief finger-wagger, happy to twist the screws to rivals caught in the vise.

"We have to do the right thing, create a stable environment where people know what it's going to be like to do business here, not putting legislation in one day and then distancing ourselves from it the next," he told the debate.

Tory party members meet in Calgary on Sept. 17 to cast ballots to choose a new leader.

If no candidate gets a simple majority of votes, the top three move on to a second and final round of voting on Oct. 1.

Stelmach has announced he will step down on that day.