Alberta Progressive Conservative win holds lessons for Harper's pro-Wildrose MPs

Bruce Cheadle, The Canadian Press

OTTAWA - Even as the polls were closing Monday night in Alberta, a group of federal Conservative MPs had no inkling their chosen right-wing vehicle was heading for the ditch.

Members of Stephen Harper's Alberta caucus, some of whom loudly backed the upstart Wildrose party, watched the provincial election in stunned disbelief, according to insiders.

Alison Redford's Progressive Conservatives returned to power with another strong majority, winning 61 of the province's 87 seats despite a slew of polls that had suggested Danielle Smith and the Wildrose party were en route to ending the PC dynasty. Wildrose, which began the campaign with four MLAs, ended up winning 17 seats.

The Wildrose, whose campaign staff borrowed heavily from Harper's old federal team, was ideologically attuned with Harper's Reform roots and its rejection in rock-ribbed Alberta clearly stung.

"It's pretty much an open wound today," one senior federal Conservative from Alberta said Tuesday.

Another, veteran MP Lee Richardson of Calgary, said of his Alberta caucus mates: "I know that some of them are pretty surprised — like many of media, who really bought into these polls and were walking around like experts here."

Richardson and Rona Ambrose were among less than a handful of Alberta MPs who were supporting local PC candidates.

"I think I can safely say that the majority of members of Parliament inside the Alberta caucus, that I'm aware of, are leaning Wildrose," Calgary MP Rob Anders told the Ottawa weekly the Hill Times in mid April.

"There are still a few stragglers who are supporting the Progressive Conservatives, but they're more reluctant to make a public admission of that because they see the numbers and where things are heading."

Anders wasn't alone. A number of conservative spear-carriers in the national media were badly burned.

"Eating crow isn't that bad, if it's deep-fried," tweeted Ezra Levant, Sun TV's hyper-partisan host. "Table for 2. Sigh," responded Stephen Taylor of the right-wing National Citizens Coalition.

The surprise victory in Canada's rising economic and political powerhouse has many implications on the federal scene.

Duane Bratt, chair of the department of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, says a Redford government will be good for Canada.

"In many respects, Redford wants Alberta to play a better, bigger role in confederation, commensurate with its economic (clout) and population," said Bratt.

"Smith seemed to have a much different vision."

There are also political implications.

The rejection of social conservative views as espoused by some Wildrose candidates in the campaign's final week was one cautionary tale.

The latent power of strategic, "anybody-but" voting may be another. The size of Redford's victory is being credited in part to a collapse of Liberal and NDP support as left-of-centre voters rushed to the PCs to stop what appeared to be a Wildrose landslide.

Both theories will be closely scrutinized in the Prime Minister's Office.

One lesson, said pollster Allan Gregg, a former federal Progressive Conservative strategist who is now chairman of Harris-Decima, is that "Canadians hate extremism. They just hate it, especially extremism in terms of social values on the right.

"It's a lesson that Harper learned a long time ago," Gregg added.

The Alberta example should help the prime minister keep some of his outspoken, social conservatives in line as his caucus stretches their legs in this majority mandate.

Federal Conservatives reported a late "loss of interest" by some Wildrose backers, whose stated support was always a bit tenuous and who simply failed to vote Monday.

Richardson lauded a "remarkable campaign" by the Wildrose but said late eruptions touching on issues of racial intolerance and homophobia hurt the new party.

"People were actually concerned about stopping Wildrose," said the Conservative MP.

But rather than crediting strategic voters, Richardson pointed to the sheer size of Redford's victory.

"I think it probably more likely signals a shift of Albertans to the centre — which many have a hard time believing," he said.

Richardson, an old Progressive Conservative, recalled the broad conservative coalitions of Peter Lougheed in Alberta and Bill Davis in Ontario.

"But we have seen since '93 and the surgence of the Reform party that there are differences in conservatism, even in Alberta."

MP Jim Hillyer, a Lethbridge Conservative, was reluctant to wade into the conservative divisions revealed by the race.

"It takes a bit of going out on a limb to publicly support either side when they're both on the right," said Hillyer. "Both camps make up our (federal) base."

For New Democrat Linda Duncan, the lone federal non-Conservative elected last May in Alberta, the provincial vote "should have national implications."

Redford has spoken of working co-operatively with Ottawa and the provinces, while "Harper's approach is just unilaterally impose things," said Duncan.

Duncan also argues that the Wildrose loss strips Ottawa of cover for some of the Harper government's more aggressive pro-development, environmentally lax policies.

"I think they were counting on the Wildrose winning, then they wouldn't look as bad," said Duncan.

Bratt, the policy academic, doesn't agree.

He argues that a Redford government in Alberta can push for a much-needed national energy strategy that otherwise scares the pants off the Harper Conservatives — weaned on bile against the old Liberal National Energy Program.

"You're not going to get a pipeline to the West Coast without co-operation," said Bratt. "You're going to continue to have spats with (Ontario's Dalton) McGuinty or (Quebec's Jean) Charest if you don't show the benefits of the oil sands to the rest of the country."

The academic says Harper personally remained silent during the Alberta campaign because he knew a Wildrose win would complicate his life.

"I think he realizes what a danger a Wildrose government would have been nationally and what problems that could cause him nationally," said Bratt.

— With files from Jennifer Ditchburn and Stephanie Levitz

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version said Alberta's legislature has 97 seats.