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Wildrose 'coup' bid pushes party toward social conservative fringe, former leader Danielle Smith says

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Danielle Smith and supporters, 2014

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A powerful, social conservative cabal within the Wildrose Party is determined to do anything it can to prevent Alberta's Official Opposition from moving close enough to the political centre to have a realistic chance of forming government, the party's former leader says.

In an astonishingly blunt blog post published Friday and in emails exchanged with AlbertaPolitics.ca yesterday, Danielle Smith connected the dots between the "coup attempt" faced by Wildrose Leader Brian Jean today and the social conservative uprising that led to her decision in December 2014 to cross the floor of the Legislature and join the Progressive Conservative Party.

Specific issues that drove this angry and influential group when she was leader, Smith said, included opposition to Indigenous people's rights, to debt forgiveness for post-secondary institutions and, in particular, to LGBTIQ rights.

Then and now, Wildrose social conservatives clearly believed that they can somehow win a general election without the compromise on these issues both Smith and Jean have concluded is essential to victory.

After she and then-Wildrose-MLAs Kerry Towle and Jeff Wilson defied opposition by social conservatives in caucus and marched in the Calgary Pride Parade in August 2014, the rebellion against her leadership gathered force, Smith wrote in the blog post published by CHQR News Talk Radio in Calgary, where she now works as the host of a talk show focusing on Alberta politics.

As she bluntly put it, "the knives were out for me."

In October 2014, an anonymous, targeted, telephone push poll designed to keep Wildrose voters at home in that month's four by-elections attacked Smith for marching in the Pride Parade.

"I am convinced it cost us the Calgary-West by-election," Smith told me in an email yesterday. "Had we won just that one, everything would have been so different." Instead, the Progressive Conservatives led by Jim Prentice won them all, by only 315 votes in Calgary-West.

Smith wrote in her blog that she later learned the poll "was done by a Wildrose organizer and supported by a Wildrose donor." The Wildrose Party did not respond to requests for comment on these allegations.

At the party's November 2014 annual general meeting, resolutions she supported in favour of progressive positions on the issues that infuriated the party's social conservative faction were voted down by members. "The effort at the AGM to vote down the LGBTQ equality rights policy was apparently part of an effort to teach me a lesson for marching in Pride," she wrote.

Now Jean is facing the same kind of revolt from the same quarters, Smith asserted, pointing to a blog post by former political staffer Nicky Walker.

"Brian Jean has spent the last year trying to build a big tent party that would attract more centrist voters and build a large enough coalition to be able to win the next election," Smith said. "A portion of the Wildrose Party faithful don't want to go there. So they want to turf Jean as leader."

In her emails, Smith's frustration with the unwillingness of the Wildrose Party's social conservatives to accept the rights of LGBTIQ people is very clear. At the time, she reminded me, she had only four progressively minded MLAs in her caucus -- Towle, Wilson, Joe Anglin and Heather Forsyth -- so taking a position acceptable to most Alberta voters meant an uphill fight within the caucus.

"By 2014, it was becoming glaringly obvious that Pride was the only parade my caucus/staff/party members were not attending,” she told me. Before the opposition to her leadership came to a head in the fall, she said she already felt as if she was letting down her staff, some of whom were gay, and that her husband was also embarrassed by the party's position on LGBTIQ rights.

In April 2014, the Wildrose caucus "had given itself a new black eye" when every member in the Legislature voted against Alberta Liberal MLA Kent Hehr's motion calling for a law requiring all schools to permit gay-straight alliances. The caucus had talked about a split vote, but "the socons were furious with me and heavily lobbied my caucus to get me to put a sock in it." As a result, she was asked to stay away on the day of the vote, she said. (Hehr is now the federal Liberal MP for Calgary Centre and the Minister of Veterans' Affairs.)

"It was a new catastrophe that brought back the Lake of Fire comparisons," Smith recalled. "That was it for me on staying silent. I told my caucus I would attend yegpride in Edmonton in 2014."

When she did, Smith recalled with an edge of humour, "imagine my shock to learn I had been lied to about the nature of the parade. No naked men. No booze and drugs. Just lots of people in T-shirts and moms pushing‎ kids in strollers. It was a total family affair!"

"I told caucus I was going to March in Calgary Pride. The majority of caucus still opposed‎ me doing it, but I told them I was going to anyway." Former Little Bow MLA Ian Donovan "lobbied me all summer to try to stop me, saying it would hurt him with his base. I‎ didn’t care."

By this point, Smith told me, she was realizing "I couldn't stay on as leader." By the fall, facing a civil war over LGBTIQ rights, "the caucus and party were falling apart" and Prentice "was being touted as the saviour of the PCs."

So in December 2014, she and eight MLAs crossed the floor to join the Tories, a move Donovan and Towle had already made.

The Wildrose Party was left reeling, although Jean arrived on the scene not long after resigning his seat as a Conservative MP for Fort McMurray and rallied the party. He was chosen leader in March 2015. Despite the PCs' four by-election victories the previous Oct. 27, Alberta voters were deeply disillusioned with the party's 43-year reign. There can be little doubt these circumstances contributed significantly to the NDP victory on May 5, 2015.

Smith's blog sums up the Wildrose saga as she now sees it:

"When the AGM was over, I decided I was done as Wildrose leader,” she remembered. "With all the nonsense still going on behind the scenes, I have to wonder if Brian Jean is going to come to the same conclusion after his AGM in October."

The Wildrose Party and Brian Jean did not respond to requests for comment.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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