Feature:Opinion

How dirty politics killed a libertarian revolution in Alberta

American conservatives like to disparage Canada as a land of socialized medicine and pacifism, but they would do well to watch the political happenings in our neighbor to the north, where last week hardball politics derailed a burgeoning libertarian revolution.

There’s a place where cowboy culture reigns supreme, skyscrapers financed by oil wealth tower over cities, conservatism dominates the political landscape and the economy is so dynamic that it attracts people from across the country and around the world. I’m not referring to Texas. I’m referring to Alberta — a landlocked Canadian province north of Montana hemmed in by the Rockies to the west and the unforgiving Arctic to the north. It’s the home of Canadian conservatism, individualism and economic growth.

In Canada, conservatives come in two colors — red and blue. Blue Tories adhere closely to the familiar individual-rights, limited-government conservatism of the United States. Red Tories, on the other hand, are more akin to pre-Gingrich congressional Republicans — content to grow government gradually and unwilling to upset the welfare state’s applecart.

Blue Tories deserted the federal Progressive Conservative Party en masse in 1993 and formed the Reform Party, a proto-tea party. Canada’s current prime minister, Stephen Harper, a Blue Tory, managed to unite the Canadian right in 2003 and form a government in 2006. Although the Reds and Blues have agreed to a marriage of convenience, neither faction is particularly keen on compromise.

The divorce proceedings for that marriage began last week in Alberta, a province the right has ruled for a century. The Progressive Conservative (PC) Party, which has governed Alberta for the past 41 years, installed a Red Tory appropriately named Alison Redford as its leader in October. Blue Tories including Stephen Harper’s mentor Tom Flanagan coalesced around an upstart party called the Wildrose Alliance. Led by the telegenic Danielle Smith, the Wildrose seized on the scandals plaguing the governing PCs, who had intimidated whistle-blowers and voted themselves 30% pay increases. The entrenched PCs managed to run deficits in economic boom times (25% of provincial revenues come from oil royalties) and deliver shoddy services (Alberta has the highest dropout rates in Canada and some of the longest surgical wait times) at high cost (the province also has the highest per pupil and per patient costs).

The Wildrose alternative was a libertarian’s dream: balance the budget and bank surpluses, reduce regulation and scrap expensive liberal schemes like a carbon capture program aimed at combating global warming. Smith’s Wildrose Party would introduce greater competition and decentralization into healthcare delivery (40% of the province’s budget). For populists, Smith would introduce mechanisms for referendums and recalls.

Albertans were tired of the PCs and Wildrose soared in the polls. One pollster put Smith’s party ahead by 17% — 10 days before the election. Blue Tories and libertarians could not believe it.

They shouldn’t have. Four-decade-old political dynasties don’t die that easily.

The PC empire struck back, and hard. One of the Wildrose candidates was an evangelical pastor who a year earlier had penned a blog post in which he said that homosexuality is a sin and those who fail to repent are doomed to an eternity in a “lake of fire.” A day after news of that blog post broke, another pastor cum Wildrose candidate suggested that as a Caucasian he had an advantage that ethnic candidates did not, since he could represent the whole of his diverse community. Headlines blared: “Bigot,” “Homophobe,” and the Wildrose began to wilt.