A not-so-funny thing happened when Danielle Smith wasn't looking – her Wildrose Party had another bozo eruption. And this flare-up could not have come at a worse time for the Leader of Alberta's official Opposition.
At a convention last weekend, members of Ms. Smith's party voted down a proposed amendment to Wildrose's human rights policy that was adopted as a non-binding statement a year earlier. The revision said a Wildrose government would defend the rights of all people "regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation of that person or class of persons."
The change was important for a political institution that is still viewed suspiciously in some quarters. It is widely accepted that it lost the past provincial election when an old blog post written by one of its candidates was unearthed in the dying days of the campaign. In it, Allan Hunsperger condemned gays and lesbians to an "eternal lake of fire." Ms. Smith lamented the "bozo eruption," and pledged that the party would do a better job in future of weeding out those with bigoted and narrow-minded attitudes.
Last year's recommended alteration to its human rights policy was designed, in part, to show Albertans that Wildrose is as inclusive as any party in Canada. It was hoped the change would dispel any notion it is not ready to govern an increasingly multiethnic and socially liberal society. In a speech to the faithful on Friday, Ms. Smith, seemingly convinced the advised policy change would pass, hailed the provision as a sign Wildrose had shed any vestige of intolerance.
But the next day, with Ms. Smith not on the convention floor, the party voted against making the previous year's modification permanent policy, instead opting to maintain the old constitutional language that recognized all Albertans have "equal rights, privileges and responsibilities."
Ms. Smith has tried to cast the decision in a positive light, saying it was rooted in the belief that the old language was, in fact, all-encompassing. She has urged Albertans not to read too much into it, suggesting the party's actions spoke louder than its words. The problem is, few are buying it.
The Leader and her party are in serious trouble, and the depths of those woes are dizzying given that, not long ago, it appeared the path to power was littered with rose petals. But in a matter of months, everything has changed. Wildrose's best weapon, Alison Redford, resigned in disgrace as premier. Then former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice came riding to the rescue and has since engineered the kind of corporate turnaround that makes hedge funds drool.
The Alberta Tories have their mojo back.
The Progressive Conservatives swept all four by-elections held last month. Wildrose hoped to win one or two, but came up empty, finishing an embarrassing third in a couple. Ms. Smith said she would put her leadership up for review and then quickly rescinded the offer when supporters said it was not a good idea. Some believe she would not have met the high bar of support she intended to set for herself.
Suddenly, Wildrose looks lost and uncertain. At the convention Ms. Smith blamed the media for many of the party's woes, accusing news organizations of perverting or ignoring positive stories to instead perpetuate the image of a negative and angry political brand. This takes gall, considering that for much of Ms. Redford's two-year tenure, the media focused almost entirely on the former premier's near-constant travails. Wildrose was served up daily opportunities to take vicious, but legitimate, swipes at its main rivals.
Ms. Smith has much bigger problems than the media. She desperately needs to broaden the appeal of her party, especially in urban areas. Without a breakthrough in the big metropolitan centres, Edmonton and Calgary, there is not much hope. Currently, Wildrose is a small-tent party in a big-tent political world.
The decision to reject overwhelmingly a human rights policy change that would have made the party look decidedly more modern and inviting does nothing to help its cause. At one time, Wildrose seemed close to governing Alberta. Now it could not seem further away from power.