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The bloom is off the (Wild)rose

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Danielle Smith

These may be happy days for the Progressive Conservatives under Premier Jim Prentice, but the bloom is definitely off Alberta's Wildrose Opposition.

Just weeks ago seen as a sure bet to be the province's next premier, Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith is today buffeted by an embarrassing scrap between her party's social conservatives and socially progressive members over LGBTQ rights, troubled by questions about her own performance in four recent by-elections, and sees her supporters tempted by the welcoming glow of the rejuvenated Tory benches.

Commentators are starting to talk openly about the wheels falling off the Wildrose bus.

In other words, the turnaround in Tory fortunes engineered by Prentice in the short time since the PC Party's darkest hours under the catastrophic Alison Redford seems to have had a calamitous effect on the morale and unity of the Wildrose Legislative caucus and the rank and file of the party, which for almost two years has looked as if it were about to canter into government without breaking into a sweat.

Prentice's success should surprise no one. He is a capable and disciplined politician at the head of a party that was ready to pay attention to a strong leader after two and a half years of chaos and deepening doubts about Redford’s erratic and at times irrational leadership.

But the apparent unraveling of the Wildrose caucus and party so quickly in the face of the Tory regrouping is a surprise -- at least this early in Prentice's tenure.

But since the party's loss of all four Alberta by-elections to the government on Oct. 27, Smith's hold on the affections and loyalty of the other 15 members of the Opposition party's caucus, not to mention its inevitably fractious general membership, has appeared increasingly tenuous.

Right after the by-elections, Smith said she would stand for a leadership review, then changed her mind, apparently at the urging of supporters in caucus who were none too confident she could win it.

Last weekend, while Smith was still smarting from the by-election losses and trying to figure what to do next, Wildrose members at the party's general meeting in Red Deer ignored her call to support an amendment to the party's human rights policy.

Instead, they voted down the change, which would have said the party would defend the rights of all Albertans "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." (Emphasis added.)

Their leader's hope, of course, was that by passing the resolution the party could finally put behind it the reputation for intolerance stuck in the public's mind with the so-called Lake of Fire Affair during the 2012 election campaign, in which a Wildrose candidate outlined his views on the eternal consequences of homosexual relationships in a blog published by an evangelical church at which he was also a pastor.

The revelation, which Smith later characterized as a "bozo eruption," without question played a role in the Wildrose defeat at the hands of Redford's PCs.

Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason this week portrayed the vote in Red Deer as a "bozo eruption" by the entire party -- but I don't think that's quite right. Oh, they were bozos, alright, but this was no eruption. Alas, the party, with its roots in the social conservative fringes of Alberta politics, has suffered a steady leakage of this kind of thing since Day 1.

Smith gets it that her party needs to change if it's going to succeed. The instinct of too many of her party's members is the opposite.

Perhaps they were influenced at the AGM by the brochure left under the windshield wipers of their cars by the "Reform Party of Alberta," an entity apparently created by Randy Thorsteinson, a familiar name to those who follow Alberta's social conservative fringe. He founded the Alberta Alliance Party, a predecessor of the Wildrose Party, and was leader of the Alberta Social Credit Party for a spell, in his effort to push socially conservative nostrums at an uninterested public.

If nothing else, both Thorsteinson's reemergence on the Wild Rose Country so-con scene and the Wildrose Party's rebellious membership are symptoms confidence on Alberta's right the party can form the government if they only behave themselves is beginning to waver.

The defeat of the human rights policy immediately led to plenty of bad press, plus the very public resignation of a Calgary party official who supported the change.

Smith will have a chance to try to get this issue right with her caucus next month, when Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's private member's bill supporting gay-straight alliances in schools, which passed first reading in the Legislature yesterday, comes back for second reading.

Smith says she is likely to support the bill. Her caucus is squirming with indecision. Here's betting they don't have it in them to do the right thing.

Meanwhile, the decision by former caucus member Joe Anglin early this month to sit as an independent seems to have opened fissures too. The disputatious Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA and former Green Party leader may have been a bad fit for the Wildrose caucus, but his departure amid claims the caucus in the midst of a "civil war" has according to blogger Dave Cournoyer garnered the support of other Wildrosers.

To top it all off, speaking in the Legislature this week, two members of the caucus could be heard heaping praises on Prentice and his government.

"We want to help the Premier. We believe he's serious and self-aware enough to realize help and good solutions are available from other sources, like the Wildrose Official Opposition," Cardston-Warner-Taber MLA Gary Bikman said wistfully in the Legislature. "Welcome to Wild Rose Country, Mr. Premier. We're all MLAs, and we really are here to help you."

The same day, Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson, a former PC Party member, pitched in: "I'd like to stand and say a few words about the Speech from the Throne. I thought it was a very interesting document. I think there were a lot of good things in there, a lot of good words, good ideas. …" He went on: "Hopefully, we can work together."

Is this a theme, or what? Is it just me, or do these guys sound like they'd like to re-join Prentice's party as soon as possible?

Then there's the unconfirmed buzz in the Legislature that at least one other Wildrose MLA -- no one named in this post -- is talking to the Tories about crossing the floor now that Redford's political career is history.

If this keeps up, Smith's political career may soon be history too.

Indeed, if it continues, it's hard to believe she won't be thinking seriously about pulling the plug on politics herself.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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