How dirty politics killed a libertarian revolution in Alberta

Sean Kennedy | Freelance Writer

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.

The PCs, who likely fed the stories to the media, jumped on the headlines and tried to paint the Wildrose as intolerant rednecks. Twitter and Facebook buzzed with left-of-center talk of “strategic voting” to keep Wildrose out. A hit YouTube video argued that if supporters of the also-ran parties of Alberta — the Liberals and New Democrats — backed the PCs, Wildrose would be stymied. It sounded ridiculous. Then the calls came and came, and never stopped. Supporters of the Wildrose Party started receiving harassing robocalls at all hours of the day and night from the Wildrose Party — or at least the recorded voices claimed to represent the party (Canadian law enforcement is currently investigating what happened).

Next, Alberta’s public employee unions started calling people at home, urging them to strategically vote against Wildrose. Rumors that union contracts would be voided if Wildrose took power spread quickly.

A few days before the election, Wildrose candidates noticed that the signs they had put up in supporters’ lawns were starting to disappear, apparently because their erstwhile supporters were ashamed of being associated with a party now seen as homophobic, racist and union-bashing. And when Wildrose candidates knocked on doors, the occupants would often slam their doors shut after they realized which party the candidates represented — in very un-Canadian fashion.

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith looked overwhelmed. She refused to sack her outrageous candidates, stumbled over messaging and did not call out the PCs for the dirty tricks. Media polls still said Wildrose would win — but they were wrong and Smith’s internal polling showed it. She chose to believe the sweet lie.

On election night, parties for the Wildrose looked like funerals. Moping candidates and friends joked about the good times — only two weeks before — when a libertarian revolution was at hand.

American conservatives and libertarians should take heed from the Wildrose Party’s experience. Politics is war by other means and it’s naive to assume your opponents will go quietly.

Sean Kennedy is a visiting fellow at the Lexington Institute. He spent the last few weeks on the ground in Alberta interviewing Wildrose candidates and strategists.

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