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2 political general meetings in 1 weekend: Wildrosers conduct gloomy post-mortem; PCs flirt with characteristic hubris

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Danielle Smith

Both of Alberta's right-wing parties held general meetings this weekend -- the ever-ruling Progressive Conservatives in Banff and the so-far never-ruling Wildrose Party in Red Deer.

The PCs led by Jim Prentice patted themselves on the back for their victories in the Oct. 27 by-elections and the Wildrose Opposition led by Danielle Smith beat themselves up for their inability to make any headway in the same four votes.

They both, arguably, missed the boat in their deliberations.

Readers of Alberta Diary are just going to have to put up with armchair strategizing  from afar, since getting to Banff is just too big an investment in time and money for a busy pre-Christmas weekend, and Red Deer, well, nobody in their right mind would go to Red Deer at this time of year!

Indeed, the fact the Wildrose Party's leaders were inclined to pick that central Alberta city -- a venue that seems to possess all the vices of a small Prairie town and none of the graces -- may illustrate part of their problem.

That said, of the two, the Wildrose Party had the more interesting topic to ponder -- how to deal with the existential crisis it faces if it can't pull off a victory in the next general election, something that looks less likely every day Jim Prentice remains as premier.

On Friday Smith told the party faithful that she'll step down as leader in 2016 if the Wildrosers don't win the election widely expected that year. Of course, that's not much of a promise as there's unlikely to be much of a Wildrose Party left to lead if it can't win an election after the Tories and the province suffered through a catastrophe like Alison Redford.

According to reports in the popular press, Wildrose rank and filers stood up at the meeting and complained their slogan in the Oct. 27 mini-election election sucked, the focus on Redford's disastrous tenure in office was all wrong, and, as the Edmonton Journal put it, they had a problem with "disorganized internal data."

This all has a ring of truth to it, but none of it really goes to the root of the Wildrose problem.

Yeah, "Time to Send the PCs a Message" was a pretty lame slogan, but I doubt any slogan would have made much difference in a vote in which, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson rightly pointed out, the deck was stacked by the governing party in favour of the governing party.

The Wildrose campaign’s negative focus on Redford was a mistake. Albertans seem in a forgiving mood when it comes to Prentice's leadership, at least willing to give him a chance to prove the Redford Government was an aberration, not the reductio ad absurdum of 43 years of PC rule.

But that fact is closely related to the Wildrose Party's genuine need to set itself apart from a PC party that espouses the identical ideology, advocates the same policies, is funded by the same corporations and people, and in many cases still has the same members, but also has the significant advantage of actually being in power.

The Wildrose plan, clearly, was to say, "we're more honest than those other conservatives." Or maybe, "we're more competent," which wasn’t a hard case to make with Redford at the helm. But the replacement of the Redford PCs with the Prentice PCs seems to most voters to have put paid to both arguments.

So how are the Wildrosers any different? Well … and this is the party's real problem that no Wildroser wants to confront … they're still scarier than the PCs to most uncommitted voters.  The devil you know, and all that.

Moreover, the deep-pocketed corporate oilpatch backers whose money got the Wildrose off the ground in reaction to Ed Stelmach's feeble effort to charge a fair royalty are bound to be significantly less enthusiastic about a second conservative party now that there are no policy differences on questions affecting the energy industry.

The real problem the Wildrosers face now, as some of the news coverage of their meeting illustrated, is that they'll be pushed away from the moderate positions Smith has worked hard to foster by the disaffected social conservative extremists who played a big role in establishing the party.

That would be exactly the wrong thing for them to do -- as Smith clearly understands. The Wildrose Party will never win as the party of Tory outsiders. But the pressure on Smith to tack to the loony right will now be great.

Which brings us to that "disorganized internal data," whatever that means. The Journal's reporter didn't explain.

I don't think the problem was that the party's data was disorganized, so much as it was misinterpreted. This may or may not be what the Wildrose insiders had in mind, but it sounds very much as if on Oct. 27 party strategists got the idea they could beat Prentice in Calgary-Foothills and pulled resources that should have been used to win in Calgary-West, where the Wildrose candidate ended up only 315 votes from the brass ring.

In reality, Calgary-Foothills voters, concerned about keeping the good times rolling, were never likely to reject Prentice and introduce major instability into the administration of the province.

But victory in just one seat was all it would have taken to turn a gloomy post-mortem this weekend into a huge celebration for Wildrosers. So that Oct. 27 miscalculation may turn out to have been a blunder of historic proportions.

As for the PCs, they seem to go from strength to strength under Prentice, but the problems of hubris and a weak bench that plagued them during the Redford Era remain, lurking in the wings.

Prentice boasted that money is again flowing into Tory coffers, just like the good old days before Redford ascended to the leadership. No surprise, really, since the PCs are now advocating the oilpatch policies the Wildrose Party was established to ensure.

Prentice cleverly left the impression an election may come sooner than later -- a simple strategy that could stampede the Wildrose Party into once again trying to line up candidates too soon. It's said here the Wildrosers would be smarter to wait for serious candidates to emerge from the woodwork.

It was this mistaken sense of urgency that led to the party's acceptance as a candidate in 2012 of Pastor Allan Hunsperger, who holed the Wildrose boat just before election day when his religious views on homosexuality emerged in a blog post no one had thought to cleanse from the Internet.

And it could again result in the Opposition party picking, at best, weaker candidates than necessary.

But it would be a grave mistake for the Tories to conclude, as they seem to have done, that all the damage suffered by the PCs under Redford can be patched up in a few weeks by Prentice.

Their strongest players are gone, purged from important positions by Prentice for the crime of being too closely allied with Redford.

The weak players that remain may be just as prone to egregious blunders as the candidates the Wildrose Party is in too much of a hurry to nominate.

So while things look bleak for the Wildrose Party this weekend, it would be a mistake to count them out.

And while things look as rosy as an Alberta wild rose for the PCs, it would also be a mistake to assume their restoration to another four or five years of power is a foregone conclusion.

Prentice and his three new MLAs -- Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Education Minister Gordon Dirks and Mike Ellis -- will be sworn in Monday morning, then everyone will repair to the Legislative chamber in the afternoon for the start of the third session of the 28th Legislature with the delivery of the government's pre-election Speech from the Throne by Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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