5 things to know about the Wildrose party

Alberta's Wildrose party has a charismatic leader and a slate of untested candidates riding a wave of discontent with Alberta's long-standing Conservative government. Here are five things to know about the party that could form the next provincial government.
Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith, shown in Okotoks, Alta., on March 27, 2012, is a smart, likable woman who is "indispensable" to the party's rise, says Mount Royal University professor Duane Bratt.

When Alberta voters go to the polls on Monday, they could bring an end to a 41-year Progressive Conservative dynasty and turn to a largely untested group of politicians who say they want to return the province to a more traditional conservatism.

The Wildrose party has a charismatic leader — Danielle Smith — and a slate of rookie candidates riding a wave of discontent with the governing PCs.

Here are five things to know about the party that could form the next Alberta government.

Deep roots in Western political tradition

Alberta has a long-standing habit of spawning upstart parties — think Social Credit, Reform, Peter Lougheed's PCs at one point — upstarts that have often captured electoral victory in an impressive fashion. Wildrose — the name reflects the province's provincial flower — would like to carry on that tradition.

"In previous waves, it's always been a party that was very, very small or almost non-existent in the previous election coming in and sweeping power," says Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"SoCreds were non-existent before they knocked off the United Farmers of Alberta. The United Farmers of Alberta were non-existent before they wiped out the Liberals. The PCs had six members prior to the '71 election and Peter Lougheed's big victory."

What's more, every time that's happened, it's been a party on the right.

"There's a strong conservative populist streak in Alberta that goes back a long time," says Bratt. "There's a lot of questions about that given that there's been a lot of inflows of immigration. A lot of people believe Alberta changes you more than you change Alberta when you come here."

Rise in popularity owes much to PC woes

Much of the Wildrose momentum lies in its appeal to those dissatisfied with the ruling Conservatives, a dynasty born with Lougheed's win in 1971, and carried on under Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach and current premier Alison Redford.

"You can't really look at [Wildrose's] potential victory," Bratt says, "without looking at the self-destruction of the Conservative dynasty."

To explain the rise of Wildrose, Bratt looks to the split in the federal Progressive Conservative party between the Reform movement and the PC party in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Bratt refers to the Alberta version of the PC split as the "battle of the daughters," metaphorically speaking, of former Conservative prime minister Joe Clark and former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, both from Alberta.

Redford, the current PC premier, worked for Clark in Ottawa while Wildrose leader Smith has, as campaign strategists, Cliff Fryers, who was Manning's chief of staff, and Tom Flanagan, the University of Calgary political scientist who worked closely with both Manning and Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

"Outside the party there was always a really conservative group," says Bratt, "but they were a rump, they would get two per cent, three per cent. This is the old Alberta Alliance party, the old Wildrose party, the Western Canada Concept Party. They even won a seat in 2004."

Mark Dyrholm, left, Danielle Smith, centre, and Paul Hinman show unity as they celebrate Smith's win of the leadership of the Wildrose Alliance Party of Alberta in Edmonton on Oct. 17, 2009. (Ian Jackson/Canadian Press)

The Alberta Alliance and Wildrose merged in 2008 to form the Wildrose Alliance party. Smith was elected leader in 2009, and "Alliance" was dropped from the name in 2011.

Dissatisfaction had been mounting with the PCs for a while and Bratt points to one Stelmach decision in particular as fuelling the popularity of Wildrose: the premier's 2007 decision to increase royalties on oil and gas production across Alberta by about 20 per cent.

"This sparked anger in the oilpatch, particularly in Calgary, and you started to see some people leaving the party. But more importantly you started to see money leaving, or not necessarily money leaving, but money going … to Wildrose."

Wildrose didn't fare well in the next election in 2008, but the seeds were planted for further growth.

Leadership experience

Smith has proven to be one of Wildrose's strongest assets, and Bratt says she is a smart, likable woman who is "indispensable" to the party's rise.

However, the 41-year-old has little elected political experience — just some time in her 20s on the Calgary school board before all its members were fired by the education minister.

But Bratt says Smith, who has also served on the editorial board of the Calgary Herald and has been a television journalist, has turned any inexperience she has around and pegged it as a plus.

"She says, 'You're right, I don't have experience in intimidating doctors, I don't have experience in running deficits over five years, I don't have experience in giving myself large cabinet salaries.' She's able to use a very populist spin on that and deflect things."

Untested candidates

Few of the 87 candidates fielded by the Wildrose party have won any sort of political election. Only 11 are women. A handful are visible minorities. Some are libertarian in their outlook, others are social conservatives. They have diverse economic backgrounds, "but never at a high management level," says Bratt.

Election campaigns often have their fair share of oopsie moments brought on by a candidate's controversial statements, and Wildrose's experience has been no exception.

This week, for example, there have been two of what Bratt called "bozo eruptions." Anti-gay comments in a blog a year ago by Edmonton South West candidate Allan Hunsperger provoked a backlash against the party. Calgary Greenway candidate Ron Leech has apologized after suggesting in a radio interview that he would be the best choice to communicate with residents in the riding because he is white.

Some candidates who could prove particularly controversial have been "well-hidden" during the campaign, Bratt suggests.

"It's very similar to the 2006 federal conservative campaign, also run by Tom Flanagan, who kept those people solidly under wraps because in '04, the Conservatives looked like they were going to defeat Paul Martin and then Randy White and Cheryl Gallant and a couple of other MPs made some pretty outrageous statements about judges and abortions and things like that and it caused some real concern among voters and it swung them back to the Liberals."

Platform has a populist appeal

Wildrose has been campaigning on promises that could have a broad populist appeal: run a balanced budget; give some of any provincial surplus back to the people in the form of an energy rebate; offer direct democracy through initiatives such as public-sponsored referendums and more free votes in the legislature; tax credits for young families; a wait-time guarantee for health care.

Some of those have proved controversial, and are perhaps raising a degree of uncertainty in voters' minds as election day comes closer. It has been suggested, for example, that the referendum initiative might open the door to anti-abortion activism and that the wait-time guarantees, while innocuous on the face, would open the door to more private health clinics, which the leader supports.

"In the polls that are being done, if you look at the horse race polls, Wildrose is winning that," says Bratt.

But dig deeper in the polling data, and there isn't universal love for everything Wildrose is offering.

"There's questions that are specific to the policy proposals, like referendums, like the energy rebate, there's majority opposition to much of their plank," says Bratt.

"So my sense is that a majority of Albertans, perhaps even a larger majority of Albertans, don't like the policies that Wildrose is promising, but it doesn't matter, because they want to throw the Conservatives out of office and they have a nice, likable, smart woman leading their party."

With files from CBC News