For the first time in 40 years voters are being presented with a real choice in political parties and they are sharing their affections almost equally with both.
The recently held Wildrose Alliance (WA) party convention was by all accounts big and professionally run, but was a rather mundane affair with no embarrassing resolution gaffes. But then, with a wary eye on the cynical media, that was probably the plan. Agriculture policy discussion seemed to be all but invisible, which seems curious considering WA strength in rural areas.
However, WA strength in rural Alberta is slipping a bit, having peaked at around 45 per cent. It’s still very significant and ahead of the Liberals and New Democrats, whose electoral chances in the countryside remain dismal to hopeless. Clearly, WA leader Danielle Smith’s youthful and telegenic good looks, compared to her three bland middle-aged male political opponents, also register well with rural voters. I expect all three will try to avoid being seen with the charismatic WA leader on any stage.
It’s a good thing the WA has other political assets to persuade rural voters because at this point its agriculture policy wouldn’t change too many minds. It has all the usual right-wing boilerplate – no trade subsidies, no compulsory wheat board, less government interference, moral support for exports, encourage the private sector and on and on. It’s all pretty thin soup, motherhood-like, and quite similar to that of the ruling Progressive Conservative party.
The WA has set up an Agriculture Policy Task Force which one would suppose will flesh out their policy planks in time for the next election. The task force seems to be getting advice from some crafty old war horses from past agriculture political battles, such as Ted Allen of the old United Grain Growers, Norm Ward, past president of the Western Stock Growers and Chris Mills, former political strategist for the Alberta Cattle Commission (now Alberta Beef Producers).
In addition to the WA leader’s personal assets, the party has had another surefire asset to attract rural voters, that being the Premier and the energy minister, who between them made a number of bone-headed royalty decisions that devastated the rural and small-town economy. The former agriculture minister also managed to alienate producer organizations by taking away their checkoff. With help like that, the WA didn’t need any agriculture policy to attract voters.
Time to repent
But there is still time to repent and the PC government has begun making amends by basically reversing its royalty decisions which are now once again reviving up small-town economies. New Agriculture Minister Hayden seems to understand the political stakes and has mused about amending the more dubious actions of his predecessor. He seems to be wavering on the checkoff issue, but then may under pressure from the Premier and his feedlot-operator friends.
I would suggest that at present the voting intentions of the rural voter is fickle indeed. For the first time in 40 years they are being presented with a real choice in political parties and they are sharing their affections almost equally with both parties.
Government politicians should by now be aware that taking rural voters for granted has resulted in a huge rise in WA support. But the WA shouldn’t fall into the same trap and assume that their new-found rural support is solid. There is a conundrum here for political strategists of both parties. Like most opposition parties, I expect the WA doesn’t want to have a very specific and detailed agriculture policy platform before the next election for fear of the government stealing some of their ideas.
The PC government does have some strategic advantages, and could make some bold agriculture support proposals or retract some bad decisions to derail any WA initiative to exploit discontent. But governments are usually hamstrung by entrenched bureaucracies with their own agenda or, heaven forbid, they might have to admit to mistakes.
What agriculture industry voters are looking for is a vision, even a hope that they can grasp, and not the same insipid tiresome agriculture policy principles that both the WA and PC parties are at present offering. Whichever party between now and the next election can capture that vision will have the agriculture voters hearts. Right now, either party has in its power the ability to win or lose those hearts.