Wildrose steps back to the centre

Alberta’s surging right-of-centre Wildrose Alliance Party moved closer to the political centre Saturday, but party Leader Danielle Smith denied they’re abandoning principles because they sniff power in a province where the Tories have ruled for decades.

Leader Danielle Smith announces that 83 Wildrose Alliance party constituency presidents are in place

Leader Danielle Smith announces that 83 Wildrose Alliance party constituency presidents are in place

RED DEER — Alberta’s surging right-of-centre Wildrose Alliance Party moved closer to the political centre Saturday, but party Leader Danielle Smith denied they’re abandoning principles because they sniff power in a province where the Tories have ruled for decades.

“You could only go as far as the public is willing to go,” said Smith as the party wrapped up its annual convention.

“You can’t just bulldoze ahead with ideas that don’t have popular support, and I think what you’re seeing in the (meeting) room is there’s some recognition of that.”

Smith’s remarks came a day after she lashed out at Premier Ed Stelmach’s Tories in the convention’s keynote speech. She accused them of botching every file from health care to the environment because they make policy with one eye on the popularity polls.

Smith dismissed the suggestion that her party may be doing something similar.

“Having the public on your side is a check of whether or not your program is one that ought to be implemented,” she said.

The convention was set against a backdrop of political flux in a province that hasn’t changed governments in 39 years.

The Alliance, under Smith, has just four members in the 83-seat legislature, but is matching or beating Stelmach’s Progressive Conservatives in the opinion polls. Critics have tried to paint the Alliance as an angry fringe mixture of Christian activists and rural gun nuts.

But resolutions passed by about 500 delegates Saturday suggested the party is edging away from earlier core policy stances.

In one case, delegates defeated a resolution to strengthen the rights of citizens to own guns. A second resolution that argued guns should be kept out of the hands of criminals but not at the expense of law-abiding citizens was passed, but by a very narrow margin.

Delegates also voted to strike down a section of their platform that said teachers should not be allowed to strike because they’re essential workers.

“We have to pick our battles carefully,” Rob Anderson, the party’s legislative member for the Airdire area north of Calgary, told delegates before the teacher vote. “The teachers will rally against this resolution.”

Anderson spoke up again just before delegates narrowly voted to retain a policy that allows workers to opt out of unions and to take secret votes on whether to certify or decertify.

“It’s a touchy subject,” Anderson told conventioneers, adding that the issue should be given to caucus to craft, “so we look like a government in waiting.”

Some delegates said broadening and watering down resolutions is robbing the party of its bite.

“We have to stand for something,” said delegate Brian Dell.

Anderson, in an interview later, said his concerns don’t mean he’s kowtowing to whatever is popular.

He noted that delegates continue to support the potentially divisive concept that parents have a right to move grade-school students to the school of their choice, with provincial funding following that student.

“That’s an absolute bedrock principle that I’m not backing away from,” said Anderson.

The party also tossed out a resolution to support the development of nuclear power. The province is currently assessing a proposal to build such a facility in the Peace River area to provide power for the oilsands industry.

Delegates also voted for whistle-blower legislation, a made-in-Alberta constitution, a study on creating a provincial police force, and the removal of “financial incentive” law enforcement tools like photo radar.

The party did not overturn core beliefs, including supporting an increased role for private health care in a publicly funded health system and using binding referendums on critical issues.

The party prides itself on fiscal hawkishness. A resolution saying the government “ought” to minimize deficit financing was tossed out because it was, in the words of one delegate “too wishy-washy.”

Smith also announced that the party now has riding presidents in all 83 constituencies across Alberta and will begin holding nomination meetings for candidates this fall.

Three of the four Wildrose legislative members used to sit with the government. The latest to join was Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo member Guy Boutilier on Friday.

Smith told delegates that if other Tories want to cross the floor, “the door is closing.”

She said once nominations begin in the ridings, the party will no longer allow sitting Tory members to swoop in.

“I will not parachute in a sitting MLA on top of the nomination process. I don’t think that would be fair,” said Smith to cheers from delegates.

She said some members of Stelmach’s caucus have quietly come to her to discuss a possible floor-crossing. “They’ve disappointed me,” Smith said. “Some have said to me ‘Not now, but maybe next year.’ Now they know that next year will be too late.”

She said they’ll be ready to fight an election by next spring. Stelmach has said he’ll call a general election in March 2012, but Smith said she believes that’s a ruse and that the vote will come earlier than that.