Five years ago today, Pastor Allan Hunsperger's Lake of Fire opened wide and the Wildrose Party fell in.
Have Alberta's right-wing parties learned anything at all since then? It sure doesn't seem like it. In fact, if anything, they're getting worse.
Probably everyone in Alberta who follows politics remembers the unfortunate Rev. Hunsperger -- although I'm sure he'd be just as happy if we all forgot about this particular aspect of his career.
Just in case there's anyone out there who missed the story, Hunsperger was an evangelical Protestant Pastor from a church in Tofield, east of Edmonton. On April 15, 2012, he was also a candidate for the right-wing Wildrose Party in the riding of Edmonton-South West in the provincial election that was scheduled to take place eight days later.
Therein lay the problem.
Up until then, it looked to a lot of observers as if the Wildrose Party was riding the crest of a wave. Alison Redford, the Progressive Conservative premier who had won the PC leadership the previous October, appeared to be struggling. Wildrose leader Danielle Smith seemed poised to become Alberta’s second woman premier. There was even serious talk in political circles of a new four-decade Wildrose dynasty like the PC dynasty founded in 1971 by Peter Lougheed.
Alas for Smith and her Wildrosers, Hunsperger had also been a blogger. Back in 2011, he wrote a blog that I am sure reflected his sincere belief, in which he warned that those who live a gay lifestyle risk eternity in hell. "You will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell," he wrote. Therefore, he concluded, "accepting people the way they are is cruel and not loving!"
Pastor Hunsperger's first big political mistake was not telling someone about his commentary when he volunteered to run as a Wildrose candidate. His second was leaving the blog post where anyone could find it.
The Wildrose Party's first big mistake was not checking for stuff like this. When someone Tweeted a link to Hunsperger's unfortunate post on the night of the 14th, the End was Nigh.
On the morning of April 15, the story was in the Edmonton Journal -- metropolitan daily newspapers still being a thing back then -- and while it wasn't immediately apparent, the Wildrose Party as done for.
As you can see from David Staples' column, which is still available online, Smith immediately compounded the error by standing by her man.
While Redford expressed her shock that anyone could hold such a view and skillfully reminded voters that these were the same people who could soon be choosing a cabinet, Smith defended Hunsperger for having strong religious views. "As long as they keep that in their personal lives," she argued, "I don't believe we’re doing anything different than other political parties."
Had she possessed 20/20 foresight, I am sure that Smith, who most emphatically does not share Hunsperger's views on this topic, would have done things differently.
Who knows what all the factors were that made people vote the way they did on April 23, 2012? The Wildrose Party and the Alberta punditocracy thought voters wanted to shift to the right. For whatever reasons, voters seemed content to shift a little to the left, as represented by Redford, who had campaigned as a progressive Conservative.
Whether or not the Hunsperger revelations made the difference on April 23 -- they certainly had an impact -- Redford's PCs won a renewed majority. The Wildrose formed the Opposition with a disappointing (to them) 17 seats. Tory Matt Jeneroux won overwhelmingly in Edmonton-South West, with close to 60 per cent of the vote.
In hindsight, Smith's reaction was clearly not the right one. She should have condemned Hunsperger -- that close to the election it would have been impossible to dump him as a candidate.
She could even have pledged to make him sit in purgatory as an Independent if he won -- although, to be fair, the political risks of that at the time must have seemed bigger than the risk of weakly supporting him. Her social conservative base would have been outraged. One seat could have made or broken a legislative majority.
This just shows, I guess, that sometimes the right thing to do is also the right thing politically.
Alberta's right-wing political parties have never been able to crawl back out of the fiery pit Hunsperger led them into.
In fact, they keep making it worse, as the past three weeks have clearly illustrated. Like a kid with a scab, they just can't stop picking at it.
Not only that, but it seems to me that, unlike Pastor Hunsperger, who at least was motivated by sincere religious conviction, when politicians like Wildrose-leaning PC Leader Jason Kenney stir this pot to rile up their social conservative base and wedge some voters their way, they're doing it for reasons that are both cynical and hypocritical.
That's far worse than a sincere desire to save people's souls, no matter how wrongheaded.
Whatever happened in 2012, when Alberta voters became dissatisfied with Redford's performance in office, and that of Jim Prentice who was brought in to replace her, they were quite happy to move even further to the left and elect a social democratic NDP government. As a result, Rachel Notley became Alberta's second woman premier.
For his part, Pastor Hunsperger has returned to more familiar territory.
Who knows what might have happened if Smith, under the influence of Preston Manning, had not blundered again and tried to get her entire caucus to join Prentice's PCs in December 2014, opening up even more fissures on Alberta's right.
Now it is 2017, and it's Eastertime too -- the season of redemption in Pastor Hunsperger's eschatology. It seems unlikely there will be any redemption for the Wildrose Party this Easter.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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