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Wildrose eyes oilpatch

CALGARY - The leader of Alberta's burgeoning Wildrose Alliance party is going after the province's powerful oilpatch for support - and the key players seem to be listening.

CALGARY - The leader of Alberta's burgeoning Wildrose Alliance party is going after the province's powerful oilpatch for support - and the key players seem to be listening.

In a breakfast speech to about 200 industry players Monday, Danielle Smith promised to applause that her party would make changes to the province's royalty framework.

Royalties have been a lightning rod for discontent in the Calgary business community since Premier Ed Stelmach reworked them two years ago.

A looming multibillion-dollar deficit, planned health-care cuts and a confused rollout of the province's swine flu vaccine program have chipped away at the government's popular support even more, while buzz has grown around the farther-right Wildrose, especially since Smith was elected last month.

"It was nice to see a full room, and that doesn't surprise me. Our party was one that opposed the new royalty framework right from the beginning," Smith said after the hour-long speech and question session.

"We have an environment which is hostile to oil and gas investment; it's hostile to the industry. And I think that they see that the Wildrose is a party that is going to be a champion for the energy sector."

Jim Davidson, who heads the Calgary investment firm FirstEnergy which organized the breakfast, said he wanted to introduce Smith to the "downtown core."

"Gathered today were 200 of the most important businessmen in southern Alberta," he said. "It was a sellout and that shouldn't be taken lightly. These men are busy and they have things that they should and could be doing, and they took time out of their day to listen to what Danielle had to say."

Calgary political analyst Keith Brownsey said Smith is targeting the city's business leaders in part to build her party's war chest. She's also going after a sector in which many people see Stelmach as a bumbler, he said.

"It's about raising money and at least giving her party and her leadership a certain legitimacy that, perhaps, the Conservatives lack with the business crowd."

Barry Cooper, a University of Calgary political science professor who has publicly endorsed Smith, said many people are riding the fence by holding both Tory and Wildrose memberships.

He said it's most important for Smith to get the business community on side before reaching out to the rest of the province, in part because discontent with the government is strongest in corporate ranks.

"When that happens, that will give her the leverage to get her message out to other places of dissatisfaction with the government," Cooper suggested.

"The benefit, as well, is they (business leaders) have enough money to send the message out to other places."

Stelmach survived his party's leadership review on the weekend with a 77 per cent approval rating. He said after the vote that he's confident the Progressive Conservatives are on the right track but that more effort is needed to communicate that to Albertans.

Stelmach has dismissed the Wildrose party as a threat. He points out that his Tories have a dominating majority in the legislature and the Wildrose party has but a single seat.

Smith said Monday that the premier may still have the support of his party, but he is out of touch with the average Albertan. She added that she will begin consultations Tuesday to find out what policies the business community would like to see from the Wildrose.

Brownsey said he would be surprised to see many big business leaders publicly shift to Smith's side. While they may support her financially, he said, much more of a public move is unlikely.

"The oil and gas industry isn't foolish. They're not going to stick their necks out politically. These are smart people who want to do what's best for their companies and for the industry as a whole. And they're not going to anger a Conservative government that's in office for at least another 2 1/2 to three years."

Davidson wouldn't offer any suggestions on what Stelmach could do to win back loyalty.

He introduced Smith as a strong opposition voice in Alberta, but said time will tell if she's seen as more.

"I think this audience here is willing to listen, and I don't think several years ago that if I had tried to attract an audience this large, I would have been that successful," he said.

"I think that's a statement."

 
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