Looking to the future, Wildrose leader pushes for a more progressive approach

The Globe and Mail

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith makes a campaign stop in Calgary, Alta., Friday, April 20, 2012. Albertans go to the polls on April 23. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Wildrose leader Danielle Smith is urging her party base to adopt more progressive policies, saying they won't win an election if they get bogged down in controversy over socially conservative initiatives.

In a speech Saturday headlining the party's first assembly since the spring election, Ms. Smith was equal parts reflection and rally cry. Ms. Smith softened the crowd, by rolling out attacks on the governing Progressive Conservatives and boasting about Wildrose's success stories, before issuing a plea to the members in the room as they began what will be an 11-month grassroots review of party policy.

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Those policies need to be overhauled to suit the modern voter, Ms. Smith said – more talk about deficit-slashing, less talk about gay marriage and firewalls.

“Some of these policy areas are sensitive, and I understand that there will be legitimate differences of opinion, but our policies must look forward to what Alberta will be, not what it once was,” Ms. Smith told a crowd of over 500 people at a west Edmonton convention centre. “We need to defeat the PC establishment, and the only way we will do that is with ideas that are fresh and innovative and forward-looking. And I emphasize, and will go on emphasizing, that whatever our policies may be, let them communicate respect to every Albertan.”

Wildrose was crippled by a series of controversial policies and statements during the province's spring election campaign, which it lost after, according to polls, jumping out to an early lead. They included Ms. Smith's belief that the "science isn't settled" on climate change, as well as Wildrose's support for conscience rights, where an official (such as a pharmacist) could refuse a service (such as providing emergency contraception) based on religious beliefs. A blog written by candidate Allan Hunsperger was revealed, saying homosexuals will spend eternity in a “lake of fire.” The Wildrose platform also included several elements of the decade-old, so-called Firewall Letter signed by Stephen Harper and others urging Alberta set up its own pension plan and police force. All of it overshadowed Wildrose campaign.

In short, Wildrose needs to move on, Ms. Smith said, but it won't be easy.

“We'll find out over the next year. I did frame my comments understanding this is going to be a hard conversation for some of our members to engage in, and a hard discussion. But I think it's a necessary one. I think we got characterized in the election because of controversial statements made by a couple of candidates, because of a couple of controversial policies,” she told reporters after the speech. “We need to have a policy platform that's forward-looking, and we need to have a team of candidates that's able to express themselves in a way that doesn't alienate Albertans. I think that is what our membership wants, and we're going to have to go through the discussion of what kind policies don't reflect the party we want to be, and don't reflect the kind of province we want to see in the future.”

Wildrose is building for the next election in 2016. It raised $3.1-million during this year's election campaign, nearly double what the PCs did, and garnered a third of the vote. It puts them in good position, but it's a party at a crossroads – should it steer its policies more to the mainstream, or stick with the base? That was the question Ms. Smith faced in a question-and-answer period at Saturday's convention. She said it's up to local constituency associations to freeze out candidates who can't express themselves respectfully.

“I want you to ask them these tough questions. And if you don't feel that they're able to express their views that is inclusive, that is respectful, that does a credit to our party, then I think you have to make the choices at the local level to choose candidates who can. I truly believe people with strong religious views should run for political office. I think we have a better dialogue in the legislature,” Ms. Smith said, as the crowd interrupted her with applause. “For sure, absolutely. But we have to be able to express our strongly held beliefs in a way that's not going to alienate other people.”

Ms. Smith said she “thought that Albertans would see through” attempts to “tar” all their candidates as controversial, but the damage was done.

“I think if we're going to win in 2016, we want to be able to be inclusive and respectful of people from all different backgrounds and faiths,” she said.

In her speech, she went after the “downright incompetent government” of the PCs, led by what she called “Platinum Card Premier Alison Redford and Deficit Doug Horner [the premier and finance minister, respectively].”

She was introduced by Wildrose MLA and House Leader Rob Anderson. Wildrose is a party of libertarians and social conservatives; if Ms. Smith is the face of the former, Mr. Anderson is the face of the latter. As such, he's been a rumoured successor should she ever leave, rumours stoked lately by rivals' unfounded claims that Mr. Anderson plotted to overthrow Ms. Smith Saturday.

It was a rumour the two have repeatedly shot down, including several times Saturday. “Let me be clear, the only takeover happening in this province will be in 2016,” Mr. Anderson said in introducing her. “So much for the coup,” Ms. Smith said as she took the stage.

After the election loss, Ms. Smith had said her party would debate thorny issues at this weekend's meeting. But it proved too lofty a goal. The party instead begun the review Saturday, one that will culminate in a policy overhaul at a meeting in October, 2013.

It's a need for change that new Wildrose party president David Yager knows all too well – he was among the 70 candidates who lost in the spring election when, as he puts it, the "air was let out of tires.” The party has strong fiscal and regulatory policy, he said, but needs to pay closer attention to the voters it's wooing.

“I believe that it is important that we, as a party, be introspective,” he said in an interview. “We're a growing party. I want Albertans to watch us. Not only that we have an idea of what Albertans need, we need to have a better idea of what Albertans want.”

But with a move to the centre, or away from socially conservative issues, Ms. Smith and Mr. Yager risk losing some of its base – the crowd that filled the room Saturday.

Among the attendees was Calgary MP Rob Anders, one of the most outspoken and controversial federal Conservatives. He's an unabashed Wildrose backer who thinks they'll win government by being more conservative, not less.

“I think the lesson of the last election was really about union involvement and strategic voting [that favoured the PCs]. That was really the lesson of the last provincial election,” he said in an interview. “It's the core – the heartbeat of conservatism in this province, and I see it in this room – that voted for Wildrose.”