Danielle Smith versus the social conservatives

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith continues to come under fire for not doing more to reign in (or expel outright) controversial candidates such as Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech. In the rush to discuss the ethics of Smith’s inaction, there seems to be little discussion of the motivations thereof, so here is another post about the inside baseball that goes on in politics.

Before I begin, I want to emphasize that the discussion of the ethics of Smith’s response is a very important one. I write about the backroom dynamics because they are another layer of politics that can explain—though not necessarily ‘justify’—why certain political actions do or not happen. I am not saying that the backroom dynamics are more important, but that they cannot be ignored.

From a purely political and strategic perspective, Hunsperger and Leech’s comments could cost the Wildrose the election. The PCs have tried from the onset of the election campaign to attack Smith on hot-button social issues. The attacks have largely failed against Smith, given her well-known social libertarianism. However, the Wildrose’s candidates were wild cards, and Canadian politics has several examples of staunch conservatives putting their feet in their mouths because they either had poor media training and well-meaning statements came out sideways, or in a few cases, they were actually bigots. Alberta Liberal leader’s ill-fated foray into the abortion issue in 1993 is well-known, but it seems that Hunsperger and Leech forgot that homosexuality and race on the same list of ‘topics banned from election campaigns’ as abortion. Thus. the hits the PC campaign could not land on Smith ended up being self-inflicted by the Wildrose’s own candidates. One would think that the sin of torpedoing your party’s election campaign merits some sort of sanction, but none has come.

My best guess is that Smith is afraid of her party’s rank-and-file, and throwing prominent, albeit inarticulate, social conservatives under the bus would risk a leadership review and possible expulsion from her post. Given their populist nature, the Wildrose constitution has easy mechanisms for both the party and the caucus to compel, restrain, or even depose the leader, and I would bet on the social conservatives being able to outmaneuver and out-muscle the libertarians, fiscal-hawks-but-social-liberals, and disgruntled-but-not-ideological-former-Tories in the Wildrose.

If the PC-Wildrose feud is a messy divorce, then the Wildrose electoral coalition is an awkward marriage of the four aforementioned groups. While Smith won an overwhelming leadership mandate, she was elected in the midst of an economic crisis that untied the factions within the Wildrose on the common ground of economic hawkishness and antipathy towards Ed Stelmach. With Ed gone and the economy improving, the unifying forces within the Wildrose may be giving way to the long-standing divisions between the factions within the party.

Moreover, the social conservatives know that they are in the minority these days and that choosing Smith was a compromise they had to make in order to deal with the greater evil of the progressives who have taken over the PCs. Now that they can smell victory, I am sure the temptation exists to replace Smith with a more ideologically pure leader who is conservative on both sets of issues. Leader says all things that seem to mean something but really mean something else, and, “I stand by my members,” or “My members are behind me when I say…” often mean, “I was told by members to…” or “My members have threatened to depose me unless…” I will not name any names, but even casual observers of politics know of the ambitions of certain Wildrose members. Thus, do not think it so much that Smith supports Hunsperger and Leech, as much as she cannot public oppose them and hope to survive the wrath of the well-mobilized social conservatives within her party.

The irony, of course, is that the constraints imposed on Smith by social conservatives is similar to the constraints imposed on Redford by her old guard, albeit, the latter case is more of a purely political issue rather than an ideological one. If I feel up to it, I might write that post tomorrow.

Smith, and her fellow libertarian, Tom Flanagan, know that social issues are a political minefield in Canada, and the impressive discipline of the Wildrose campaign in the first three weeks are a testament to the lessons learned from Reform’s ill-disciplined 1993 federal campaign.  If the PCs do manage to complete the Hail Mary pass on Monday, the Wildrose might have to go through the same long and arduous learning process that their federal counterpart spent the better part of 11 years doing. If history is an indicator, the opportunity to change governments in Alberta only comes once every twenty years or so, and the would-be-government’s ship can easily crash on the rocks just before reaching port.


About jbsantos
Polling, politics, PR and outdoor pursuits.

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