With the Alberta Tories proving so many pollsters and pundits wrong after their convincing win last night, one might be forgiven for writing off the ultra-conservative Wildrose Party as an otherwise historic footnote in the annals of Alberta’s Tory dynasty. That, I argue, would be a mistake. First, let’s look at the actual results. The Tories surprising victory last night owes an awful lot to the distortions that first-past-the-post electoral systems inevitably generate. The Tories took 77% of the legislative seats with just under 44% of the popular vote. Wildrose tallied an impressive 34.5% of the popular vote, despite receiving only about 19% of the legislative seats. Had there not been a decisive run to the Tories by strategic voters the picture last night may have been very different. So while Wildrose did not match the overly optimistic expectations of the pollsters, they may still have positioned themselves to be the “heirs-in-waiting” to the Tory dynasty.
In certain respects, Wildrose’s rise to prominence closely mirrors the ascent of the Harper Conservatives. Like Danielle Smith’s party, the early Harper Conservatives were plagued by “bozo eruptions” by self-professed social conservative candidates that alienated the public and helped fuel Liberal suggestions that the Conservatives were “too extreme.” Such rhetoric also caused many voters to rush towards the strategic voting option of “Anyone But Harper.” As we have seen, Harper learned from these mistakes, slowly assuaging the public that his party was not captured by radical conservative ideology. This was accomplished more by imposing tight discipline on candidates and enforcing rigid message control – to the point that some Conservative candidates would not even show up for public debates – rather than any change in the candidates per se. Given that so many of the same people behind Harper’s electoral machine were also behind Wildrose’s meteoric rise, we can be sure that these same lessons will be drilled into the party over the next few years. Indeed, in an attempt to ward off the potential for candidates to speak “too candidly,” Danielle Smith imposed a $1,000 “good conduct” bond on all candidates that would be returned “if they behaved” during the election. Despite these efforts, Smith has already conceded that inflammatory comments by Wildrose candidates played a decisive role in scaring voters into the arms of the Tories.
Harper’s slow work of reassuring the public garnered him enough trust for two minority governments and eventually a majority. Should Danielle Smith follow the Harper lead of muzzles, rigid media-silence and iron-fisted caucus discipline, she may yet convince Alberta voters that Wildrose isnt that scary after all – policies notwithstanding.
Simon Enoch is Director of the Saskatchewan Office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives. He holds a PhD in Communication and Culture from Ryerson University in Toronto.