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Feeling good about Alberta

As difficult as it is to find things in politics to feel good about, this week’s election in Alberta is something to cheer up anyone who’s despaired of the apparent rightward direction of Canadian politics in the past few years.

In Alison Redford, the bright, forty-something human rights lawyer who grappled first with retrogressives in her own Progressive Conservative party, and then went on to defeat the Tea Party-ish Wildrose Alliance, dramatically confounding the pollsters, Canadians may have found a model of statesmanship for the next decade of the 21st century.

Ms. Redford, most will remember, won the leadership of her party and became premier of Alberta last October, in a voting marathon that put her on top despite having the support of only one fellow MLA, little or no name recognition outside her hometown Calgary, and being a first-term MLA.

She promptly set to work to recreate the dynastic right of centre PCs (in power since 1971) and brought in a budget that included, among other dramatic steps, a multi-billion dollar fund to improve R&D (and reduce environmental damage) in the oil sands industry.

Her policies flew head on against the Wildrose Alliance, representing the most right-wing elements of the PC party. They’d broken away, just as the die-hard free enterprise, hang ’em high, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage zealots of Brian Mulroney’s federal Conservatives had done twenty-five years ago, when they split to form the Reform party. That led to ten years of one-party Liberal rule before both sides were brought back together by the skilful management of Stephen Harper, aided and abetted by then PC leader Peter McKay.

Until a week before the Alberta election, it seemed as if the province was in for a Wildrose government. The polls predicted a majority for a party led by the attractive, articulate Danielle Smith, who was cleverly cashing in on voter animosity toward the too-long in power PCs.

A funny thing happened on the way to the polling booth.

Alberta discovered its place in Canada, and in the 21st century. Whether it was due to the “bozo” comments of a couple of Wildrosers which were never repudiated by Ms. Smith, or to the fact that Alberta’s economic surge has brought several hundred thousand new voters in the past decade, the old image of a redneck, Eastern-hating province no longer rang true.

The result: a massive shift in voter sentiment in the weekend before the vote. Albertans were not about to accept an unproven party that harbored religious fanatics and racists, and was prepared to face off against the rest of Canada on the environment, fiscal policy, and “conscience” issues (code language for socially regressive views on abortion and gay marriage).

My first newspaper job was in Alberta, and I can tell you it was one of the most conservative places in Canada. But my sharpest memory is of the optimism of Albertans for the future. I remember meeting a construction worker who told me: “With all the oil and other resources we’ve got, Alberta is going to be the richest province in the world.”

The new PC majority, 61 seats to 17 for Wildrose (5 Liberals and 4 New Democrats) gives Alison Redford firm control of a province that she describes as wanting a government that is “socially progressive and fiscally conservative.”

Her description aptly fits the definition of a Red Tory, a species Stephen Harper has spent the past ten years doing his best to kill off. Few Canadians will quarrel with a party dedicated to socially progressive and fiscally conservative policies. Even Tommy Douglas, the revered founder of the NDP, would have to agree. He told the cabinet of his first government in Saskatchewan that he didn’t intend to run deficits – he had no desire to “pay interest to the bankers.”

Ms. Smith, to her credit, accepted her party’s defeat stoically. She concedes Wildrose will have to re-think its policies, especially on the toxic issues of  “conscience’ and climate change that contributed to its defeat. One can expect Wildrose to become a more disciplined, more focused party once its members get to the Legislature. It will have the chance to do what all good opposition parties do: hold the government to account. And thereby perhaps become the government itself some day.

Ironically, just as Canadians were absorbing the Alberta results, there came evidence from Ottawa that not everyone in the federal Conservative party has learned the lesson of Wildrose. Stephen Woodworth, a Conservative MP from Ontario, introduced a private member’s bill to set up a committee to study when life begins in the womb. The objective, obviously, is to make abortion illegal. The Prime Minister says the cabinet will be “whipped” to vote against the bill, but backbench Tory members will be allowed to vote as they wish.

Alison Redford won’t be worrying about her backbenchers coming up with measures like this. She is dedicated to working with Ottawa and the other provinces on ways to make oil sands development environmentally more acceptable, and to strengthen the economic union that is Canada. Look for her to be the Newsmaker of 2012.

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