Alberta’s Wildrose struggles to distance itself from allegations party doesn’t …

Analysis

It was a statement that had been trumpeted hundreds of times over the past year by Alberta Wildrose opposition leader Danielle Smith, and one that had been endorsed unanimously during last year’s Annual General Meeting: the Wildrose would respect the rights of not only all Albertans — it specifically promised to recognize those rights regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender and sexual orientation.

It was a symbolic gesture, even then.

This expanded motion on equality wasn’t voted into the party’s official policy in 2013, but was instead accepted as a statement. It gave party leadership a rhetorical tool to fight allegations of bigotry in the wake of the 2012 election, when Wildrose’s reputation was severely damaged by the long-ruling Progressive Conservatives’ attempts to cast the opposition as backward and anti-gay thanks to the infamous comments of a pastor and Wildrose candidate, Allan Hunsperger, who warned that homosexuals would burn in a “lake of fire” in a blog post.

Wildrose has never recovered from this perception problem, and it’s increasingly looking like it never will.

At this year’s AGM, held this weekend in Red Deer, an attempt to enshrine that equality statement in the party’s policy manual was voted down 148-109.

Despite the fact that Ms. Smith had bragged about the Wildrose’s more expansive definition in her speech on Friday, the party membership voted for a pared down version that excluded any explicit mention of “sexual orientation” on Saturday.

Instead, they decided to stick with the current policy, that the party would broadly “recognize that all Albertans have equal rights, privileges and responsibilities.”

This old policy is both all-encompassing and innocuous, certainly, and Ms. Smith did her best to play down the vote.

“I think that the nature of the debate was that they were concerned there might be something excluded in that long list,” she said. “I think that’s a reasonable position to take. I certainly don’t think anyone should take offence to it.”

But the failure of the more thorough version to pass demonstrates that the leadership of the party has been unable to impress upon its membership the depth of the political problem it faces; unless Wildrose is able to expand its base and appeal to more centrist voters, it may remain Alberta’s opposition in perpetuity, at best, or, possibly, wither into a fringe protest movement. And those centrist voters, even in Alberta, won’t countenance a party that is perceived to be anti-gay.

Danielle’s Smith “defence of Hunsperger [in 2012] came from a Libertarian thought process,” said Janet Brown, a Calgary-based pollster, who tracks issues and attitudes for a living. “And so I think I’m reluctant to go so far as to paint Wildrose as anti-gay. But I think their Libertarianism gets in the way of their sense of how these things are going to be perceived, and perception is reality.”

The median age of Alberta is 36.5, which makes it the youngest of all the provinces. Its booming economy and low unemployment rate draws new people in at a rate that seems to accelerate every year. Further, its population is growing more and more urban.

These aren’t the characteristics of an electorate that sways heavily toward social conservatism. And, indeed, Wildrose lost to the PCs in 2012 on these very grounds.

“It’s one of those stereotypes of Alberta that just doesn’t bear out. In Alberta we are fiscally conservative, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s a stereotype that we’re conservative in other ways as well and we’re not,” Ms. Brown said.

“When it comes to social issues, we’re as progressive, if not more progressive, than the rest of the country and we’re also a highly urbanized province. The attitudes [here] are in keeping with other big Canadian cities.”

Wildrose held its AGM on the same weekend as the Progressive Conservatives, the latter meeting in Banff. Newly emboldened by Premier Jim Prentice’s successful first few weeks in office, the news out of the west side of the province involved photos of the leader playing hockey in the mountains and a general love-in despite a tacit warning of budgetary woes to come thanks to low oil prices.

When it comes to social issues, we’re as progressive, if not more progressive, than the rest of the country and we’re also a highly urbanized province

By comparison, Ms. Smith promised hew to the opposition’s constitution and to resign if her party didn’t gain power by the next election.

“If we win the election in 2016, I will be premier and we will be the ones facing a new leader of the Official Opposition,” Ms. Smith said in her speech to party faithful. “If we don’t win the election in 2016, it will be up to you as Wildrose members to choose a new leader.”

Kris Wells, the director for the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta and one of the province’s leading gay rights activists, said it’s important for political parties to name traditionally disadvantaged groups.

“This is a way that the Wildrose party can certainly demonstrate its commitment toward the LGBTQ community, and to change the narrative that they don’t support them,” Mr. Wells said.

Even though the old statement is still on the books, so to speak, its vote this weekend is like “diving into the lake of fire,” he added. “They’re taking steps backwards.”

National Post, with files from Postmedia News

• Email: jgerson@nationalpost.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *