Danielle Smith isn't satisfied with being leader of an opposition party – she wants her party positioned to govern.
Alberta voters, she hopes, will look favourably on a set of policy changes enacted by her Wildrose Party members during the weekend annual general meeting. Among the revisions, the party's executive announced changes to tighten up the party's candidate selection process.
Members voted to jettison the controversial policies many believe sowed the seeds of defeat in the 2012 provincial election. The Wildrose candidate who said gays will spend their afterlife in a "lake of fire" and the climate-change science debate are in the rear-view mirror.
"I've never wanted to lead a party that was going to be the right-wing NDP. I wanted to lead a party that's capable of forming government," she said in an interview in a quiet room away from a large hotel hall filled with 500 party members.
Wildrose is in the midst of a maturation process – a process honed by allies now in the federal Conservatives as the party moved from being the upstart Reform to a serious opposition to a majority government. In the process, they tempered the more extreme elements of their party and focused attention on conservative policies that centrist voters could buy into.
During the weekend, the Alberta Wildrose Party took some of its first steps down this road. Work was done to strip the party of what Ms. Smith calls the "distractions" that previously gave foes the chance to paint it as a group of right-wing firebrands.
Not everything went like clockwork, and there is still the issue of whether voters will view this as a true change of heart. Progressive Conservative cabinet minister and Red Deer MLA Cal Dallas made an appearance at the hotel where the Wildrose AGM was being held to remind reporters that a Wildrose MLA's fundraiser next month was set to feature a vocal climate-change denier until the appearance was abruptly cancelled.
But as Ms. Smith and other party officials had hoped, gone from the policy booklet are references to conscience rights, "firewall" issues such as a provincial income-tax plan or constitution, and a push to disband the Alberta Human Rights Commission.
"Some policies that we wanted – an Alberta police force, or we wanted an Alberta pension plan – were issues that didn't sell well," said party member Debra Lozinski of Hylo, Atla. The policy changes on the weekend, "are the improvements that are going to build our base."
With Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson saying the party was going to be "loud and proud" against discrimination, members also passed a special policy motion to protect the fundamental rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of a long list of factors, including race and sexual orientation.
And for the first time, the party said it was a good idea to reduce greenhouse gases. During the 2012 campaign, Ms. Smith was famously booed when she told an Edmonton audience that the science on climate change was still a debate. Earlier this week, Ms. Smith said the science didn't matter, but market access for Alberta's oil and free trade with countries concerned about climate change does.
But on Friday, Ms. Smith told reporters: "I accept that climate change is a reality, as do our members. I accept that there's a human influence on it."
The majority of members voted in favour of a policy – though it doesn't mention climate change – that calls in general terms for greenhouse-gas emissions to be cut. However, a few fought against the policy addition. Long-time member Milan Matusik said "global warming is the biggest scam in human history."
The party also announced it was beefing up the candidate selection process, including a thorough search of public statements or writings of the nomination contestants.
The more rigorous selection process is in direct relation to the 2012 election and two controversial Wildrose candidates – pastors Allan Hunsperger and Ron Leech. Mr. Hunsperger had come under fire for a past blog entry that said gays will spend eternity in the "lake of fire, hell." Mr. Leech told a radio station he had an advantage in his multicultural riding because he's white.
The Wildrose Party wraps up their annual general meeting as the Alberta legislature resumes today for a fall sitting the government says will be focused in large part on rebuilding from the destructive southern Alberta floods in June. There will be legislation to beef up the province's emergency management legislation, clarifying how close new houses can be built to ever-shifting rivers, and a supplementary supply bill to help pay for all the flood damage.
"The early part of the fall focus I'm sure will be on what's happened with the flood, and how we go forward," said government house leader Dave Hancock. "It's not an easy or a short process."
However, Premier Alison Redford's government is forgoing a throne speech, and the fall sitting is simply a continuation of the legislative session which began in May, 2012. Mr. Hancock said getting laws passed is more pressing than another throne speech – which in Alberta is traditionally done in the spring – including pieces of legislation that consolidate social service delivery, environmental monitoring and promoting "market access" for Alberta's oil.
While Ms. Smith said the Wildrose is still conservative and populist – and will continue to focus on balancing the budget and fiscal restraint – her keynote speech focused on where the Progressive Conservative government is falling down when it comes to seniors or Albertans with disabilities.
"That's what people want to see – our next step," Ms. Smith said.