Rise and Fall of Wildrose Party Inextricably Linked to Danielle Smith

Wildrose leader, 8 others join governing Conservatives
December 17, 2014 10:39 pm Last Updated: December 17, 2014 10:18 pm

EDMONTON—Danielle Smith has headed back to her political roots with Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives after spending the last five years fighting to oust them from power.

Few would argue that the Wildrose party’s rise and fall has been inextricably linked to Smith, 43, a self-styled disciple of Britain’s Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

On Wednesday, Dec. 17, Smith resigned as Wildrose leader, saying in a news release that her singular objective since she took the helm of the party more than five years ago was “to return to government the conservative values and principles that I had spent my life defending.”

“Under Premier [Jim] Prentice’s strong leadership, I believe we can work together to lead Alberta with a renewed focus on the values and principles that we share,” she said.

Prentice and Smith are calling the move the “unification of Alberta’s conservatives” and the premier said he would welcome further Wildrose members to his team.

The defections leave the Wildrose with five sitting members in the 87-seat legislature. The Liberals also have five members and the NDP have four. Former Wildrose member Joe Anglin sits as an Independent.

The loss of Smith could be crippling to the party. The erudite business leader and former journalist was the catalyst who, over the last five years, delivered energy and mainstream credibility to an upstart right-centre party that gained followers when the Tories fumbled on issues such as land rights and fiscal conservatism.

As official Opposition since the 2012 election, Smith and her caucus mates used dogged research and Rottweiler-intense attacks in question period to expose weaknesses and scandals that helped topple two Tory premiers.

Polls, in fact, had the Wildrose leading the 2012 campaign up to the final week when anti-gay and racist remarks attributed to two candidates, along with Smith’s hedging on whether climate change existed, raised doubts on whether the party had the maturity to lead.

The party’s highwater mark came this past spring as the Tories dropped in the polls following the spending scandals that forced then-premier Alison Redford to resign.

Tailspin

But under Prentice, a fellow fiscal conservative, the Wildrose have gone into a tailspin that hit a peak when the Tories trounced the Wildrose in four byelections on Oct. 27.

In the days that followed, the brittle confidence of Smith and her team appeared shattered. Their poll numbers fell and Smith appeared off her game.

She asked for an immediate leadership review, only to be told the party constitution didn’t allow it.

When Anglin quit the caucus ahead of being turfed, Smith accused him of secretly taping caucus meetings. She did not have proof.

In a speech to party faithful at their annual convention last month, she blamed the mainstream media for fostering the narrative that Wildrose is negative and narrow. She said the path to power lay in blogs and engaging the grassroots through social events organized by Wildrose “fun police.”

At the same convention, Smith was out of the room when party members refused to ratify into policy a statement on inclusiveness it had passed a year earlier. That resurrected criticism the party remained intolerant toward homosexuals and was not ready to govern.

Soon after, two of Smith’s caucus members jumped to Prentice. She railed against the defectors and their betrayal. She assured her membership that “there will be no more floor crossings.”

Just three weeks later, Smith broke her own vow. She and eight of her remaining caucus members have moved to the government benches and have left the fate of the party that flourished under her up in the air.

With files from The Canadian Press