The Wild Rose Alliance is a relatively new political party in Alberta. They have however gained great momentum in recent weeks and have just elected a new leader. While the next provincial election is a ways off in the future, the party is doing very well and is poised to actually win some seats and make large inroads.
EDMONTON — The face of conservative Alberta politics changed Saturday when Danielle Smith, a former business leader and journalist, was overwhelmingly voted the new leader of the surging Wildrose Alliance Party.
To the cheers of 400 supporters in a south-side Edmonton hotel ballroom, Smith took to the stage and threw down the gauntlet on Premier Ed Stelmach's Tory government.
"We see in these waning years of the Progressive Conservative era how badly leaders and caucuses behave when they are beyond any requirement to account regularly for their decisions," Smith said to the cheers of the crowd.
"Ed Stelmach, you haven't begun to imagine what's about to hit you!"
She took aim at a government facing billions of dollars in budget deficits, accusations of breaking faith with business by changing the oil royalty scheme and mismanaging health-care delivery, while delivering to itself extravagant perks and pay packages.
"We're going to give Albertans back their province and we're going to give them back their pride," said Smith.
"My number 1 job is to turn Alberta back into a real democracy once again."
Smith took three out of every four votes from her opponent, Mark Dyrholm.
Of 8,297 votes cast, Smith took 6,295 to 1,905 for Dyrholm. There were 97 spoiled ballots.
Smith, 38, said the party plans to hold policy roundtables through the new year while also building up candidates at the constituency level.
Stelmach doesn't have to call another election for at least two years.
"We must be ready to govern," Smith told the crowd. "Albertans don't vote for oppositions. They elect governments - always."
Dyrholm, a 38-year-old chiropractor, said he conceded defeat in the counting room even before the final ballots were tallied.
On stage, with his wife Kamala battling back tears nearby, Dyrholm encouraged party members from both camps to make the decision unanimous and to work with Smith.
"Once we knew the outcome, I felt it was important we be fully united behind Danielle," Dyrholm said later.
When asked what went wrong with his campaign, he said, "To speculate right now in the moment of losing doesn't strike me as a smart thing to do."
The party said it sold more than 11,600 memberships, a membership being required to cast a vote.
Smith is now hoping to build on the momentum of popularity that began last month when former leader Paul Hinman won the riding of Calgary-Glenmore in a byelection.
It was a seat that the governing Tories had held for 37 years. It renewed speculation on whether Stelmach could lead the party through the current economic crisis that has the province grappling with a record $7-billion deficit.
It's the party's only seat in the 83-seat legislature, compared with 70 for Tories. But recent polls have put Wildrose second to the Tories and suggests Stelmach's personal popularity is in free fall.
Stelmach himself has felt the knife-edge of criticism from high-profile members of the Tory old guard. In recent weeks, they criticized his handling of the economy and said a surging Wildrose may be a comfortable new home for unhappy Tories.
Last week, the premier went on TV in a provincewide address to ask teachers and nurses and other public sector employees to voluntarily freeze their wages to help solve the crisis.
A day later, he announced he and his cabinet colleagues were cutting part of their perk packages, reigniting the criticism hurled their way a year ago when they voted themselves a 30 to 34 per cent salary hike after winning the general election.
They have also been stung by media reports that members of Stelmach's inner circle received five-figure bonuses on top of six-figure salaries last year.
Stelmach faces a mandatory secret-ballot leadership review in three weeks, the same process that kick-started the in-house race that made him premier three years ago.
His predecessor, Ralph Klein, was handed a tepid 55 per cent approval rating in the same vote process and decided to retire. Klein said recently that Stelmach needs at least 70 per cent to continue as leader.
Smith won after a hard-fought, at times divisive campaign for the party that espouses grass roots involvement, property rights, lower taxes and less government.
Both Smith and Dyrholm are staunch fiscal conservatives from Calgary and disaffected members of the provincial Tories.
The difference was that Smith was viewed as more socially libertarian than Dyrholm, whose campaign received the high-profile backing of activist church groups such as Concerned Christians Canada and Equipping Christians for the Public Square.
Commentators and political scientists labelled Smith a big-tent moderate, who could appeal to a wider range of conservative voters and capitalize on the victory in Calgary-Glenmore.
Dyrholm, they said, would marginalize the party as a narrow and intolerant far-right protest group. He dismissed that criticism during the campaign, saying he is not out to impose his values on anyone.
Hinman, however, imposed his own views on the issue, saying earlier this month: "One candidate is focusing on a narrow base to win a nomination, and the other understands the big picture and wants to attract all Albertans."
On Saturday, Hinman urged members to unite as Danielle prepares to enter the lions' den, starting with a news conference in Calgary on Monday.
"The question is how are we going to play the game? Are we going to stay focused on the job or are we going to get sidetracked and fight over little things that are not important? There's a lot of work to do."<!-- google_ad_section_end(name=article) -->
Copyright © 2009 The Canadian Press
Robert W May is a Real Estate Broker in Lethbridge Alberta, having now been in the industry for over 23 years. . He was also a licensed Lethbridge mortgage broker and financing expert with Canada First Mortgage of Calgary Alberta for the past 10 years. He is an industry leader always willing to help train and educate others in how to improve their business models for financial and personal benefit.