04/23/2012 04:30 EDT | Updated 06/22/2012 05:12 EDT

Rise Of Wildrose: Alberta's Right-Wing Party Found Fertile Ground In Tory Government's Struggles


EDMONTON - When Danielle Smith won the Wildrose party leadership in the fall of 2009, she took to the stage at an Edmonton hotel and gave 400 cheering supporters their rallying cry.

"Ed Stelmach! You haven't begun to imagine what's about to hit you!" she shouted.

Stelmach wouldn't last as premier, but Smith made good on her word.

Since then Smith and her team have taken a sputtering right-wing movement and moulded it into a populist machine now challenging the Progressive Conservatives' 41-year hold on power.

But then it is a party that couldn't have been formed without the Tories' help.

Smith and the Wildrose, many of them ex-Tory supporters, have gained traction by giving a voice to those frustrated by a government they believe stopped listening on land rights and balanced budgeting, while rewarding itself with lavish raises and payouts.

"I don't think a party that has been in power for 41 years and has created all of the problems that we have today deserves another four years to screw it up," said Smith as the election campaign wound down.

But dissatisfaction with the Tories was evident even in the heady days of the last decade, when high oil prices were delivering multibillion-dollar surpluses to the province.

The windfall allowed then-premier Ralph Klein to fulfil his pledge to wipe out Alberta's $23-billion net debt.

But it was a paydown that came at a cost.

With boom times came hundreds of thousands of newcomers. They jammed schools and roads and crowded hospitals.

Klein admitted he never had a plan to cope with the boom, and in 2005 he quit after a lukewarm vote of confidence from the rank and file.

In came Ed Stelmach, an unassuming veteran Edmonton-area cabinet minister viewed as the compromise choice by Tories who feared their big tent would collapse if it chose either right-winger Ted Morton or centrist Jim Dinning.

Between Stelmach and a global economy that tanked in late 2008, the seeds were sown to sprout the Wildrose.

At first, it was a honeymoon for Stelmach. The Tories won 72 of 83 seats in the March 2008 general election.

With billions of dollars still coming in, he spent to catch up on infrastructure and had enough left over to grant himself and his cabinet 30 per cent pay raises.

But discontent was forming in the background.

New Tory members of the legislature, such as Rob Anderson, had hoped to play a part only to learn backbenchers were props. Stelmach and his circle would tell them the policy and they'd vote for it, he said.

"It was completely undemocratic, in every possible way," Anderson said.

Spending was at un-conservative levels, with new records for outlays being set every year. That wasn't considered a political problem as long as oil remained high.

It didn't.

In the fall of 2008, when the global economy fell into a trough, the multibillion-dollar Alberta surpluses turned into multibillion-dollar deficits.

But the new roads and schools were still needed, so the spending taps stayed on.

Stelmach withdrew billions of dollars every year from a rainy-day Sustainability Fund to keep Alberta out of the long-term red.

But problems followed like falling dominoes.

To speed up construction, the government passed a series of bills to give them wide authority to appropriate private land for public infrastructure with scant recourse or compensation to landowners.

Rural Albertans were outraged.

Stelmach then began tinkering with the royalty rates charged to oil companies.

The industry revolted. Drilling rigs moved out of province. The oil-hub city of Calgary feared big job losses.

Within two years Stelmach's team had alienated its biggest backers: fiscal conservatives, Big Oil, and rural landowners.

A vacuum opened on the far right of the political spectrum. All that was needed was someone to fill it.

On Sept. 14, 2009, Calgarians fired the shot heard around the province: they voted in Wildrose candidate Paul Hinman in a byelection in the Tory stronghold of Calgary-Glenmore.

By that point, the Wildrose had been around in various forms for seven years, moving in fits and starts.

It began in 2002 as the Alberta Alliance under former Social Credit leader Randy Thorsteinson.

It gained a foothold when Hinman, five years before his Calgary-Glenmore victory, won the Alliance's lone seat in the 2004 election in the deep south rural area around Cardston.

But that one step forward was followed by two steps back.

First the party fractured, with dissidents forming the Wildrose party. They reconciled shortly before the 2008 election and renamed themselves the Wildrose Alliance, but only had enough time to field candidates in 61 of 83 ridings.

They took just seven per cent of the vote.

Stelmach's team, meanwhile, brought their guns to bear on Hinman's Cardston riding and washed away the Alliance's tiny beachhead.

But with Stelmach's continued fumbling and another deficit budget in 2009, Tory party supporter Danielle Smith had seen enough and jumped ship.

She was the new face of the Wildrose: smart, urban, and telegenic, with a fluid, forceful debating style forged by years of public speaking and hosting a current affairs TV show. She patterns herself after Margaret Thatcher, and like Prime Minister Stephen Harper, graduated from the same fiscally austere "Calgary school" of economics.

Using Hinman's 2009 byelection win in Calgary-Glenmore as a springboard, Smith began to build a party.

Within months, disaffected Tories Anderson, Heather Forsyth and Guy Boutilier joined their ranks.

But it was on land rights that Wildrose took wing.

They backed town hall meetings, giving voice to landowners outraged that their birthright could be gone in an instant.

Stelmach at first dismissed the outrage as Wildrose-inspired hysteria, but soon got the message that he had a political problem on his hands.

The Progressive Conservatives eventually redrafted their land bills, promising no annexation without representation.

But the die was cast.

By early 2011, the Wildrose was tied with the Tories in popular opinion polls and Stelmach was out. He quit as premier ahead of a reported caucus putsch and — after a six-month leadership campaign — Alison Redford was in.

Poll numbers initially rebounded as the public embraced Redford, a human rights lawyer and former federal Tory adviser.

But the Redford dawn was soon overshadowed by the baggage of past party mistakes.

First came the revelation that parties of all stripes, mostly Tories, had been paid thousands of dollars for years to sit on a committee that didn't meet.

Then came the final $10.6-million bill for transition payments to outgoing politicians, the result of a silent broadening of eligibility rules under Klein.

Once more the public was upset, and the Wildrose again had traction.

When the writ dropped, the Wildrose campaign, led by ex-Harper adviser Tom Flanagan, grabbed the initiative, rolling out tight, succinct promises day after day: balanced budgets, health-care guarantees and direct cash rebates from oil and gas surpluses.

The party took an early lead in the opinion surveys but as the campaign wound down, slid back over concern with its social conservative policies.

The Christian right has always been a part of the recombinant DNA of the Wildrose — as it had been for the Tories — giving it oxygen but at the same time threatening to strangle any bid to build a big tent party.

In the 2009 Wildrose leadership contest, Smith's main rival was Mark Dyrholm, who had the backing of activist groups like Concerned Christians Canada and Equipping Christians for the Public Square.

In the election campaign those issues have come back to bite the Wildrose.

It began with the surfacing of a year-old blog by Edmonton candidate and Christian school activist Allan Hunsperger. He urged gays to repent or burn forever "in a lake of fire" and blasted "godless" public schools for fostering acceptance of gay students.

Then came Calgary candidate Ron Leech, a pastor who told a radio program he was the best candidate because his white skin allows him to communicate effectively with all races.

Smith fired back at critics last Friday, saying her party is through with being called bigots.

"I take it personally when accusations of racism and bigotry are aimed at me and at my party," she said. "Let me be perfectly clear — a Wildrose government will not tolerate discrimination against any individual on the basis of ethnicity, religion, beliefs, background, disability or sexual orientation ... period."

In doing so she sounded a second rallying cry: asking Albertans to accept that a party grounded in free speech and free votes in the legislature can keep intolerant views from bleeding into public policy.

Her answer comes Monday.

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