Wild Card

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith has poised herself as a politician of principle. But can she govern?

Photograph by Randy Fiedler, the Red Deer Advocate/The Canadian Press
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, flanked by fellow MLAs, at her party’s provincial convention in Red Deer, Alberta, on June 25, 2010.

The YouTube video pans across the snowy Alberta prairie as canned synthesizer notes timed to a heartbeat evoke the requisite awe. Danielle Smith, leader of the upstart Wildrose Party, smiles while throwing a ball to two dogs, cream and brown, like the thawing countryside. “She’s changing things,” a voice intones. “She loves the province,” says another, as Smith continues the down-home frolic with her charming canines.

The introductory clip doesn’t mention that she used to hate dogs. In a 2005 Calgary Herald column, she lamented the carnal and scatological habits of Turk, her then boyfriend’s Chesapeake Bay retriever. Just under seven years later, the boyfriend has become the husband, and the columnist, now head of the rightmost party of Canada’s rightmost province, is leading the vanguard to oust the dynastic Progressive Conservatives. “I’m a dog lover. I didn’t start off that way,” she tells me, unbidden. “You’ll probably go through my columns. You’ll find one where I said, ‘Here are the reasons why I’m not a dog lover.’ But I am now.”

As leader of the de facto opposition, she seems as affable as Phil’s, the family restaurant where we meet on a big-sky fall afternoon—the sort of place that has plastic high chairs, crayons in paper cups, fabric flowers, and a reliable menu. It’s midday, but Smith, clad in a red blazer, says she hasn’t eaten yet. She orders a Monte Cristo sandwich with a side of iceberg lettuce, and speaks as if reciting a monologue, stopping only to take a bite. She is, after all, a politician.

Smith is a true believer in conservative principles. At the University of Calgary, where she took English and economics, she led the campus PC club and studied under political scientist Tom Flanagan. An internship at the Fraser Institute imbued her with a passion for Ayn Rand and charter schools. After graduation, she held positions with various advocacy groups focused on land rights, the libertarian cri de coeur. At twenty-seven, she won a spot as a trustee on the Calgary Board of Education. “It was a horrible black mark on Alberta’s democracy,” says Jennifer Pollock, a fellow trustee and three-time failed federal Liberal candidate. Back then, the school board was among the most vocal critics of Ralph Klein’s cuts; Pollock believes Smith was parachuted in to discredit the organization. Within months, it had become so fractious that minister of learning Lyle Oberg dissolved it.

Smith moved on to the Calgary Herald ’s editorial board, where she advocated for the privatization of health care and public services. One former board member recalls her arguing in favour of privatizing sidewalks. When Wildrose formed in 2007, Smith—who had stayed in politics for the debates—saw an opportunity. At the time, the party managed to unite social conservatives and gun-loving libertarians. It is now competing with the governing PCs, who have achieved forty consecutive years in power. (Only two other provincial parties, the Ontario PCs and the Nova Scotia Liberals, have recorded longer stints.)

“So many people call us and say, ‘I’m now with you,’ ” Smith says. “They tell us, ‘I’m no longer with the PCs. I didn’t leave them. They left me.’ ” The Tories first defeated the Social Credit Party in 1971 under a young Peter Lougheed, whose personal charisma reflected the emerging cities of Calgary and Edmonton. It was out with dowdy pastoral values, and in with all things hungry, ambitious, and urbane. Since then, the Conservatives’ values have tilted away from any one ideology and toward popular inclination; their longevity attracts candidates who know they must don blue to gain power. “Would [current premier] Alison Redford have joined the PCs,” asks Duane Bratt, chair of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, “if the Liberals were viable in the province?”

Redford was elected to head the party—and the province—with about half as many votes as Ed Stelmach won in the 2006 leadership primary. “You end up having nothing but career politicians, people who have been there a long, long, long time,” Smith says, cutting her sandwich with a knife and fork. “They stop thinking about what is in the best interest of their community and start thinking about what they need to do to get elected again.”

Wildrose, which has ideology to spare, represents part of an overall shift to the right in the province. The party is united by a common distrust of hierarchy in general, and the government in particular. But how does one lead a pack of contrarians? The values that make Wildrose compelling are the same ones that may alienate the majority of voters, who, despite much hard-right braying, tend to vote centre. “There’s ideology and there’s governing,” Bratt says, “and they don’t go hand in hand.” Improbably, Smith must present her party as the new middle ground and, by extension, paint the standard-bearer as wildly off track.

Maintaining power is the moderate’s Zen, and Smith, though an experienced ideologue, is an inexperienced leader. “You can only lead as far as people are willing to follow,” says Peter Menzies, who was editor-in-chief at the Herald when Smith worked at the paper. “If you can’t bring the team with you, you’re out there on your own, and that’s not a safe place to be.” If Wildrose fails to capture the legislature, it may find itself like the remnants of the Calgary Board of Education after Smith blew through. According to the Globe and Mail, at least fourteen key party members have left in the past year, citing Smith’s management style and organizational turmoil.

“[She was] like a freight train,” Pollock says. “I do love trains, but freight trains are limited. They only make certain stops.”

This appeared in the March 2012 issue.

Jen Gerson
Jen Gerson is a freelance journalist based in Calgary.