Redford’s debt to Alberta’s left

How did the Alberta PCs win a majority in Monday's election when every poll for a month showed them behind the upstart Wildrose Party?

Simple: They united the left and scared the middle.

The Wildrose won 34% in the election — almost all of it from the carcass of the PCs. Those voters were the C in the PC party — the true conservatives.

But instead of trying to win those voters back, PC leader Alison Redford invited new voters into her party — the P's in PC. Progressives. Or, as they're usually called, Liberals.

In the last Alberta election, the Liberals received a hearty 26.4%. (By contrast, Michael Ignatieff's Liberals got less than 19% nationwide.)

Redford spoke to those 26.4% with a compelling argument: You'll never elect a Liberal government in Alberta. So why not vote for a party that believes in the same things, but just calls itself PC?

Redford said she would consider a coalition government with the Liberals or NDP, but not with the Wildrose. She couldn't have been plainer — she wanted Liberals to vote for her, and those frightening Albertans considering the Wildrose? Well, good riddance to them.

And it worked. The Liberal Party plunged to less than 10% this time. Most voted for the Liberal who could win: A PC named Redford.

It was a unite-the-left strategy, to keep out Wildrose.

When Tom Olsen, Redford's spin doctor, attacked the federal Reform Party and Deborah Grey on TV, true conservatives saw it as a gaffe. When Redford put out an ad mocking their "father's" PC party, when Redford specifically distanced herself from Ralph Klein's record as a fiscal conservative, it looked like a mistake.

But those weren't errors. Conservatives had long ago left the party. They were never coming back. It was all about attracting Liberals. And it worked splendidly.

That's how Redford won the PC leadership in the first place, by inviting in temporary Tories — teachers' union members who flooded in just for the vote, and who were immediately rewarded with a $100-million gift when Redford won.

She just did that again last week on a province-wide scale.

It almost didn't work. Because even with the addition of almost 150,000 Liberal voters to the PCs, the Wildrose briefly pulled ahead during the campaign, as Albertans took a look at their leader Danielle Smith and liked what they saw. But that's the thing ­— it was brief.

A few poorly worded comments from Smith's less well-known and less likeable candidates were the spark for a two-week bombardment of negative ads by the PCs and their liberal allies — including the Alberta Federation of Labour and its 1.5 million robocalls.

The massive attack in the last half of the campaign had its effect. It was enough to scare 10% of the Wildrosers back to the PCs.

It wasn't a pretty way to win, but so what — a win is a win. Final score: PCs 44%, Wildrose 34%. Which meant 61 seats to 17.

So Smith isn't going to go from being a novice to premier in one leap. But maybe she'll do it in two leaps. That's how Peter Lougheed did it. In 1967, his PCs only won six seats. Albertans wanted to size them up for four years before giving them a majority.

Or take Stephen Harper. In the 2004 federal election, polls briefly suggested he might win. Voters pulled back after a massive Liberal fear attack. But in 2006 — after a lacklustre term by Paul Martin, a term where Harper proved himself to be unscary — he finally won.

The challenge for now is Redford's: What rewards can she give her new Liberal base that won't drive the remaining true conservatives to the Wildrose? The next four years will be interesting.

Toronto Sun, Sat Apr 28 2012
Byline: Ezra Levant

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