Is Canada wondering if Alberta is still a conservative province?

Critics like to say that after 40 years of Progressive Conservative rule, Alberta is in effect a one-party state. But, after a surprise outcome in this weekend’s leadership vote, just about everyone would have to agree that this party has multiple personalities.

The election of red Tory Alison Redford is very close to a party coup, a change in leadership that promises to take the province’s government in a dramatic new direction. It is a party whose brand has been ultra-conservative values since the early 1990s, when maverick premier

Ralph Klein slashed budgets, laid off masses of workers, privatized liquor stores and razed hospitals all in the name of balanced budgets.

The name of the party that Redford is about to lead remains the same, but her plan is such a departure from the past two decades, the organization will practically be unrecognizable.

She has offered to reverse $107 million in education budget reductions within 10 days of taking office. She has pledged a public inquiry into allegations of political interference in the hospital system. And she said that she will top up salaries of non-profit sector workers; introduce family care clinics, and expand payments to the severely disabled.

All in a province that worried about the already soaring cost of government.

Yet, the party establishment – which had backed odds-on favourite Gary Mar – has quickly embraced the unlikely premier designate.

“It’s the miracle on the prairies. Nobody would have picked her,” PC party president Bill Smith said, early Sunday after the result was announced.

Actually, Smith is more correct about that than he might admit. If the choice had been left to the Tory membership as it stood before the leadership campaigns began, Redford very well might not have her breakthrough.

But the peculiarities of the Alberta PCs’ membership rules worked in her favour.

Redford’s campaign drew upon the open-membership policy of the PC party. For a mere $5, any Albertan could buy a party membership on the way to the voting station. As a result, her campaign appealed to left-of-centre opposition parties, with many Alberta Party or Liberal supporters admitting they had joined the PCs just so they could vote for Redford.

Every leadership candidate signed up new members, but Redford’s campaign was one of the most effective. (It’s worth noting that her campaign was managed by Stephen Carter, the same tactician behind the unlikely victory of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi. He, too, rode of wave of non-traditional voters.)

As the only woman candidate in a field of six, she was able to attract that gender, as well – which had the added bonus of providing her with a broadened base of support. Her human rights work in Africa also gave her softened her image as a woman for the people.

The other major factor was the PCs’ preferential-ballot system, which asks voters to mark their first and second choices on one ballot. If nobody wins an outright majority, then the third-place candidate falls off and his or her second preferences are counted. When third-party Doug Horner’s supporter shifted to Redford, she found herself with 37,104 votes, narrowly defeating Mar, who gained 35,491.

The preferential system is the same one that allowed Ed Stelmach to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to beat establishment favourite Jim Dinning in 2006.

Not surprisingly, many in the party are now wondering if the system needs to be overhauled.

Fiscally conservative leadership candidates, like Rick Orman and Ted Morton, talked about taking the party back to its conservative roots, and so did Mar, although he aimed for a more centrist line.

All of them were talking about the early Klein days, when fiscal conservatism ruled the day.

But it is Redford, a 46-year-old bilingual human rights lawyer, who is taking party even further back, to the days of the first Alberta PC leader, Peter Lougheed. When it stormed to power in 1971, the PC was a modern party, with progressive social programs and environmental policies that led to the establishment of many provincially protected areas.

Now it is back to the future, but with a twist. The choice of a (relative) leftist essentially rewrites the political dynamic in the province. With the sudden rise of the far-right Wildrose Alliance under leader Danielle Smith, many long-term Tories would have preferred a leader like Ted Morton, who could appeal to that constituency.

But all those “Drive-By Tories,” who signed up just to vote, have taken the party in the opposite direction. Voters no longer face the prospect of choosing between two right-wing parties, but instead face a broad spectrum of choices – with Wildrose on the right, the PCs looking for the centre, and the Liberals, Alberta Party and NDP each occupying a niche on the left.

Some party faithful are despairing over the PCs’ new direction. One blogger wrote: “It’s all over for the PC party in Alberta. They have ceased to be a conservative party in a conservative province. That leaves the field wide open for the Wildrose Alliance.”

For Redford to succeed, she needs to find a way to keep the Tory big tent together. That means keeping the fiscal hawks on her team by getting a grip on the fiscal reins, while finding a way to meet the expectations of the progressive-minded voters who put her in her new job. It will be quite the high-wire act.

The drama is just beginning.

Doug Firby is editor-in-chief of Troy Media and keeps on eye on Alberta

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