When we last left Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith, she was trying to convince people her Wildrose party is not against gays and lesbians and steered by a bigoted majority. Now she has an even bigger selling job: convincing people her right-wing group is still relevant and not doomed to political exile.
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The party was rocked this week by two defections to the ruling Progressive Conservatives. It was clear by Ms. Smith’s reaction she did not see this coming. One of the two was Kerry Towle, who had been one of her most trusted lieutenants and able MLAs. The other was Ian Donovan, the party’s agriculture critic, who when asked why he was crossing the floor said it was because he has been impressed by Tory Premier Jim Prentice’s leadership.
Ms. Towle linked her leave-taking to the recent conflab over the protection of gay and lesbian rights in the party’s constitution. At last year’s convention, a non-binding resolution was passed that expanded the minority rights language. Ms. Smith was so convinced it would be permanently adopted at this year’s gathering that she boasted about it in a speech the day before the vote was to take place.
With Ms. Smith out of the room, the members decided to keep the existing, more limited minority rights wording, which was seen as a clear victory for the social conservative faction of the party. It would now seem that as Mr. Prentice continues carefully rebuilding the more centrist PCs, he is leaving the door open for those Wildrose MLAs uncomfortable with the more extreme elements in their party.
And there are certainly whispers more defections could be on the way.
In the past three weeks, Wildrose has lost three members. Before this week’s departures, MLA Joe Anglin left to sit as an Independent. On his way out, he said deep fissures were developing in Wildrose that were threatening to rip the party apart.
With their four by-election wins last month, the provincial Tories now have 63 of the 87 seats in the legislature. There are 14 Wildrose, five Liberals, four NDP and one Independent. It would seem the one-party state that Alberta has been for 43 years will endure, barring some unforeseen calamity befalling the government. And given the entirely unpredictable nature of Alberta politics in the past couple of years, you cannot disregard that possibility.
The most immediate question now is the fate of Ms. Smith and her party.
After losing the four by-elections, Ms. Smith offered to put her leadership up for review. She was persuaded by her caucus and party hierarchy to rescind that proposal. Given the events of this week, you would have to think that discussion is back on the table. One would also imagine Ms. Smith is considering her options anyway, motivated not simply by events but the grim political landscape stretching out before her.
It is difficult to see the path forward for Wildrose at the moment. It found its legs as a party thanks to Ed Stelmach’s rocky reign as premier. It had its best chance at power during Alison Redford’s scandal-plagued tenure. While admittedly it is early days, it does not appear Mr. Prentice is destined to give Wildrose the same openings his predecessors did.
If anything, he seems to be building up and expanding the Conservative coalition, luring back fiscal conservatives who drifted off to Wildrose while at the same time doing enough to keep more progressive-minded backers happy. Where does Ms. Smith go, policy wise, to refresh the Wildrose brand and convince voters it is a better option than the Tories? There do not seem to be enough votes to win government based on the platform it has now.
Could a charismatic new leader make a difference? Possibly. But I don’t think a charm deficiency is what is ailing Wildrose. Danielle Smith has loads of personality. The problem is the party looks defeated. Even Wildrose’s staunchest supporters can see the formidable obstacles to returning to the promising heights it once knew.
Small-c conservative movements have taken life in Alberta before. They all faded from existence. We could be witnessing the same thing happening again.