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The Wildrose shot heard ’round Alberta – and Ottawa

Danielle Smith’s first year as leader of the Wildrose Alliance Party not only produced anxiety within Alberta’s political establishment, but it also may be influencing the thinking of mutual friends in Ottawa.

Ms. Smith, a former Calgary Herald editorial writer, television host and Alberta director for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, took the Wildrose reins on Oct. 17, 2009. Her party has since drawn three defectors from Premier Ed Stelmach’s ruling Progressive Conservatives – Rob Anderson and former cabinet ministers Heather Forsyth and Guy Boutilier.

Rarely has Canada’s political scene had to deal with a phenomenon such as Ms. Smith – stylish, intelligent, female, articulate and philosophically unambiguous. Wildrose soared in the polls, at one point hitting 39 per cent. The Tory infrastructure, deeply embedded after almost 40 years of power, panicked. Dozens of riding officials defected to Ms. Smith, and former Conservative strategist Hal Walker became Wildrose president.

Interviews with leading columnists, the CBC’s Peter Mansbridge and the Rick Mercer Report followed swiftly, and Ms. Smith passed muster so assuredly that, had an election been held last fall, Wildrose would’ve attracted a strong enough list of candidates to overthrow a Tory dynasty that appeared as uncertain as an old man with a bad hip making his way down an icy stairway.

Fortunately for Mr. Stelmach, an election was not imminent and the first provincewide test of Wildrose is unlikely to occur until the spring of 2012. Meantime, Wildrose continues to build its infrastructure, while the government paddles hard to rebrand itself as conservative first and progressive second.

Most significant was Mr. Stelmach’s choice of former leadership rival and academic Ted Morton as Finance Minister. Mr. Morton and Ms. Smith are so close philosophically that, as the Finance Minister’s supporters point out, all that anyone needs to know about Wildrose’s platform can be found on Mr. Morton’s 2006 provincial Tory leadership campaign website.

Pulses may have slowed around Wildrose since the heady 39-per-cent polling days of its honeymoon with Ms. Smith, but the party has embedded itself as Alberta’s most likely government-in-waiting. And there are signs that the ruling Tories aren’t dead, just resting. Yet, it’s commonly said that the best way to have an issue debated within the government’s caucus is not to lobby a Tory MLA but to whisper it into Ms. Smith’s ear and have her raise it with the media.

This is precisely why she’s among the first topics raised by Alberta’s 27 Conservative MPs when they return to their ridings. It is easily forgotten that many of these MPs were once Reformers who, as with many Wildrosers, grow faint at the recitation of the famous American observation that “a government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”

They know as well as anyone that the sensibilities and infrastructures that launched Reform still exist in Western Canada and elsewhere within the federal Conservative Party’s base. And they know that, after almost five years of Conservative power, there are those – primarily within the western ranks of their coalition – who are less inspired than they used to be.

Like Ms. Smith, they know that, while Conservative pluralities in Alberta are often massive, history shows they remain a potentially fragile coalition of libertarians, so-called social conservatives and various other brands of conservatives who all expect to find hints of their DNA within the party’s veins.

Ms. Smith’s popularity is a reminder to those MPs and others that the party that governs Canada is a child born of many fathers, that what happened before can happen again, and that sparks, ignored, can turn into flames.