ALBERTA

Rose versus thorns: Wildrose party faces fundamental questions at annual meeting

11/13/2014 04:46 EST | Updated 01/13/2015 05:59 EST
EDMONTON - Alberta's Opposition Wildrose party will put its body politic on the couch this weekend to decide who it is and where it's going following four byelection defeats.

"We need to have a full discussion about what it is we need to do differently and I'm looking forward to the chance to have that analysis," party leader Danielle Smith said in an interview.

"It's pretty clear we need to do some tweaking and change course on a few things — and I'm sure our members will give us some guidance."

Rank and file will gather Friday and Saturday at a hotel in Red Deer for the party's annual general meeting. It was originally intended to update members, make some policy and rule changes and rally the troops for the next election, due in the spring of 2016.

That agenda was altered after the Wildrose lost four byelections on Oct. 27 to the Progressive Conservatives and new Premier Jim Prentice.

Smith said a Saturday bearpit session, which would normally see Smith and her team field questions from party members, has been changed.

Instead, key party strategists are to sit on stage as grassroots members come to the microphone to tell them what is working, what isn't, and what needs to change.

"We've not done this before, but I think it will be a lot more meaningful," said Smith.

The challenge over the next 18 months will be to straddle the line of holding the government to account as official Opposition, while continuing to deliver policy alternatives so as to be seen as a credible government in waiting, she said.

Smith plans to outline a five-point plan to members over the weekend to address that.

"It really does come down to the ability of our members to be working one on one in their community to help us sell the Wildrose message."

The Wildrose is looking to regroup after the byelections, which saw the party gain in popular votes but still lose. There were complaints that the party went too heavy on attack ads as it tried to paint Prentice with the same brush of scandal and entitlement that led to former premier Alison Redford's resignation.

In the wake of defeat, Smith shuffled her communications and advisory team and hired a new chief of staff.

Joe Anglin, an outspoken critic of party officials and an MLA viewed as a disruptive force within caucus, quit ahead of a vote to turf him.

Smith had called for a leadership review at this weekend's meeting, but it was cancelled last week when her caucus voted to support her — and because there wasn't enough notice of the review given to members.

Political scientist Duane Bratt said Smith still has some tricky white water to navigate. The byelection losses may energize the more social and fiscally conservative elements seeking to move the party away from the more politically palatable centre, he said.

The ideological wing, however, may decide that if the Wildrose is going to lose, it should do so on its "own beliefs and principles instead of being something that we're not."

Bratt said the other challenge is that a perception of Tory resurgence may become reality, with fundraising dollars flowing away from the Wildrose.

There's also the problem of the party having its power base in rural ridings, which Bratt said traditionally like to back a winner to keep public money coming in.

"It's tough (for a government) to punish an urban riding because it's so fluid and so large," said Bratt, who is with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

"But you get a town that just doesn't get any money for its hockey rink, or for its school or for its health clinic, that's a pretty easy thing to do — and that's a perceptive fear in rural communities."

Smith made it clear that regardless of other variables, the Wildrose is moving on from what was once arguably its greatest asset — Redford.

Even before the scandal that cost her the top job, Redford served as the perfect foil for the Wildrose given her Red Tory interventionist agenda and a return to public debt now topping $10 billion.

"That's a chapter in our history that I think we're all happy to turn the page on," said Smith.

Prentice sits closer to the Wildrose doctrine of tight fiscal management and a sound economy.

But Smith said he will be challenged, as was Redford, to build the dozens of new schools and seniors care centres he has promised while reining in debt — all without new taxes, tax reforms, or increases to oil royalties.

"The question is whether or not (Prentice) can deliver or not in the long run," said Smith.

"We're going to be there, building our party and being able to offer an alternative."

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