If a poll were to be conducted immediately after Premier Ed's address to the province tomorrow night, I would expect something of a bump for the governing party, as I suspect Albertans would be reminded of what they like about the guy. As for the Wildrose Alliance, the party may be benefiting from Albertans projecting onto the party what they wish it to be. In my own case, while I've been savoring the prospect of a Fraser Institute alumnus becoming party leader, I've been becoming more aware of how I may have been imagining easy sledding for a think tank agenda post-October 17.
While I don't agree with everything the Fraser Institute has argued for, they are raising the level of the public policy debate. On Friday, October 23, for example, Jock Finlayson and and Niels Veldhuis will be giving a talk in Vancouver titled "Why the HST is good for BC." This is bold stuff: although I am a member of the Facebook group "YES BC HST," the fact of the matter is that there are currently just 412 of us while the "NO BC HST" group has more than 127 000 members.
One of the people whose name has appeared in media reports along with Danielle Smith has written dismissively of "wonkish ruminations." Should Danielle become premier and someone like this become a powerful chief of staff for her, unsolicited policy proposals from the wonks will get about as far as advice from the PCO gets with Harper, which is to say, not very. What would be solicited would be "policies" that would lend themselves to gimmicks like having the premier appear before the cameras holding an oversized novelty cheque made out to the political target group du jour.
Of course, in the Wildrose Alliance the leader does not dictate policy anyway. But if the leader were to be one of the 5 members to sponsor a policy proposal to be taken to the floor of the AGM for a membership vote (as provided by the party constitution), the proposal would be taken seriously by both the membership and the media. Since the leader is not going to jump into this policy process without consultation with some sort of inner circle (especially someone like Danielle Smith, who is a listener as opposed to a teller and someone who seems to like a collaborative approach), just who these advisors are is going to matter. What concerns me is that I am not aware of an anti-populist faction in the party while there are more than enough people who are inclined to take a page from Stephen Harper's playbook and make (supposed) political payback the decisive criterion for a policy move. Of particular concern is environmental policy; although the membership dealt with social conservative issues at the last AGM quite judiciously, it seemed to me that people like myself who stood at the microphone to argue for environmental measures, and people like Paul Hinman who demonstrated his political experience by showing sensitivity to environmental considerations in their microphone remarks, were facing a skeptical audience. If you can't sell a green tax credit that makes no presumptions about global warming one way or the other, then what can you sell?
This idea that the leader is not the only person who matters makes the argument for voting for Danielle Smith on Saturday stronger. Why? Because Danielle Smith is an outstanding communicator and is close to an ideal candidate for the face of not just this party but any party that isn't totally at odds with a conservative or libertarian perspective. As such, she would be an asset for all of the background movements in the party, whether libertarian, social conservative, populist, or "wonkish." This is to suggest that followers of each persuasion would better serve their own interests by voting for Danielle Smith and then trying to pass their preferred planks at annual general meetings or getting like minded individuals into positions in the party that would be high on influence and low on media prominence. Leave the limelight to the leader; this leader.
A vote for Danielle on Saturday is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for the party to be perceived as a viable government in waiting. She was to both win and have significant freedom of action. She isn't, and wouldn't be, my idea of perfect on policy; to take one example, I'd prefer to treat the royalties matter as a sub-point to the issue of general business taxation, as opposed to making an issue out of how one industry is faring. But it would still be a tremendous wasted opportunity if the party membership and/or the "party elders" managed to limit her to being the party's spokesperson. Saturday will hopefully see Danielle indisputably installed as the party's face, but it won't be enough if she is not also indisputably installed as the party's leader.