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Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith speaks to reporters. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)
Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith speaks to reporters. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press/Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Letter from Alberta

Alberta's Wildrose: Are they ready to lead? Add to ...

It was, by design, the coming-of-age of Alberta's Wildrose party - an election-style annual convention held over the weekend in Calgary.

The nascent, right-wing party's charismatic leader, Danielle Smith, whipped the crowd of hundreds into a frenzy. Party members passed new policies supporting more private health care and abolishing the Alberta Human Rights Commission. They unveiled a new slogan ripped from the playbook of former Progressive Conservative premier Peter Lougheed ("It Starts NOW"). They dropped balloons from the ceiling.

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With a provincial election projected for the fall or next spring, an air of opportunity filled the room. "We believe the campaign does start now," Ms. Smith told The Globe and Mail. "I think everyone came out of the conference last weekend united in wanting to form the next government."

At the convention, volunteers, candidates and much of the press ate it up. The Sun newspaper chain (whose TV division employs Ms. Smith's husband) ran an editorial cartoon fawningly depicting her in knight's armour, riding towards a "Tory government" castle, where a guard scrambled to find a "glass ceiling."

"They got lots of media attention, especially in the Sun papers. It's as if the print media in the province have decided Danielle Smith will be the next premier. And she won't be," says Keith Brownsey, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University. The anointment, he says, is premature because of Wildrose's policies. "They certainly revealed themselves not to be that broad-based centrist party that many had hoped they would be."

Many will disagree with that assessment, but the convention - for all its glamour and production value - came at a time when the shine is coming off Wildrose. Some key defectors have already returned back to the PC party, which has held power since Mr. Lougheed's first win in 1971.

Depending on who wins this fall's PC and Liberal leadership races, Wildrose could find itself hard-pressed to usurp its rival with policies that cast it as the far-right party it insists it's not. Many supporters and donors alike continue to hedge bets by supporting both parties - undecided - and two candidates are campaigning for the PC leadership by explicitly wooing back Wildrose supporters.

On health, Wildrose members voted to support more privately provided, publicly funded care - for-profit clinics dealing with procedures such as hip, knee and cataract surgeries, as well as abortions, that generate savings through efficiency the public sector can't hope to achieve, Ms. Smith argues. Patients still wouldn't pay.

"It's actually a fairly modest foray into allowing more public-private involvement, but it's one that will be absolutely necessary for us," she says, adding: "I've been very disappointed over the past decade at the shallowness of the [health-care]debate. Any time you try to talk about public-private partnership, [advocacy group]Friends of Medicare lights their head on fire."

They voted to abolish the province's Human Rights Commission, saying "frivolous" cases - such as one against her close friend Ezra Levant - have "discredited" the agency. Courts can deal with human-rights cases instead, she says. "I don't think that Alberta voters are going to be persuaded by the scare-mongering of our critics."

And throughout the weekend, the party has echoed Sarah Palin by repeatedly invoking failures of the mainstream media to stir its base, even as its own headlines were overwhelmingly favourable. Ms. Smith repeated the assertion in an interview, as did Alan Hallman. ("No offence.")

Mr. Hallman is a veteran Tory organizer who was among many PCs at the Wildrose convention. He's kicking Wildrose's tires, but isn't working for either party. "Before you jump in a pool, you stick your toe in, right?"

The party is more moderate than he was led to believe, he says, but still has a problem - its support is sliding back to the PCs.

"I think a lot of that is people coming back from the Wildrose to support [leadership candidate]Ted [Morton]" Mr. Hallman says. "It's going to be an exciting election."

And until Wildrose locks down waffling support and wins it, the balloons are premature.

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