12/30/2013 04:00 EST | Updated 02/28/2014 05:59 EST

Wildrose Party Embraces Centrism, Activism In 2013


EDMONTON - From Team Angry to Team Advocate, Alberta's opposition Wildrose party enters 2014 with scars from some painful soul searching in 2013, but also armed with a new centrist, activist platform.

"I think we've come a long way in two years," party Leader Danielle Smith said in a year-end interview.

"We've go two more years (before the 2016 election) to demonstrate our credibility not only as an opposition but also as a government in waiting, but I'm very pleased with the progress."

In 2013, Smith's 17-member caucus moved beyond its focus on balanced budgets and government ethics scandals to more community involvement and to highlighting problems with day-to-day government policy.

They publicized the plight of a three-year-old Aleena Sadownyk, keeping the issue on the front-pages until the government agreed to fund expensive but potentially life-saving enzyme replacement therapy for her.

This fall, the Wildrose fought for the family of Violet MacDonald, a senior who was ignored in a Calgary senior's care home to the point her bedsores poisoned her bloodstream and decayed her flesh, bringing on complications that ultimately led to her death.

Health Minister Fred Horne said he was appalled by the case and is now reviewing the contract for the care facility.

"I look at our role as the opposition as being an advocate," said Smith.

"If we feel that we can, by shining a light on a particular issue, solve a policy problem that can benefit hundreds if not thousands of people, then we think that we've really done our job."

The caucus has focused more on doing more, including setting up a foundation to fund various charitable causes. All the caucus members are looking to give back at the community level, participating in events like AIDS walks.

At Christmas, they decided to not give gifts to each other at the office party but instead donate them to a home for women fleeing domestic abuse.

There were changes at the party level, too.

At the party's fall policy convention, they eradicated policy planks blamed for the election loss in 2012.

They formally embraced the science of climate change as a real problem that needs to be addressed.

In the last election — and even up to the days prior to the fall convention — Smith said the science was not settled, allowing Premier Alison Redford's Tories to gleefully portray a theoretical Smith government as a bunch of embarrassing, science-denying hillbillies.

The Wildrose cause was also decimated in 2012 by racist and homophobic comments from two candidates. When Smith refused to turf the candidates she was cast as an apologist for intolerance.

But at the fall 2013 convention, the party had reiterated its support for all minority rights, and adopted stricter rules on candidates to make sure they're picked earlier and screened closer.

Redford's team reacted in 2013 as it did in 2012, by continuing to depict the Wildrose as marginal, angry extremists. On Twitter, Redford's communications staff mockingly refers to them as Team Angry.

Smith said her team has moved on.

"Last year when people were just getting used to having a feisty opposition, I had some people say, 'You're really tough on the government (but) it seems like you're criticizing a lot,'" she said.

"But now people are saying 'We're glad you're there.'

"That is important, that people see things aren't being run all that great by a party that's been in power for 42 years and should know better."

Smith said they won't get away from fighting for sound finances, but not as end in itself.

"You can have a fiscally conservative agenda so that you can balance the budget, but you can do so in a way that continues to preserve programs for the most vulnerable," she said.

"Making sure we're doing it in a way that's compassionate and preserves those programs is absolutely what people want to see in a party that wants to be government."

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