Danielle Smith and MLA Rob Anderson. Photo: Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

And so it begins: Rob Anderson, an ambitious social-conservative in the Wildrose Opposition’s shadow Alberta cabinet has publicly fired a rocket at his leader after she changed her tune on whether a Wildrose government would allow public funding of gender-reassignment surgery.

Anderson, the party’s House Leader says there’s no way Danielle Smith can just up and change the party’s fundamental policies, even if she is the leader. He promised a “robust discussion” at the next party annual general meeting.

In a long and very interesting audio clip posted on idigyourgirlfriend.com — a website aimed primarily at an LGTBQ audience — Smith indicated a government she led would provide public funding for gender reassignment surgery, which had been eliminated when Ed Stelmach was premier.

What’s more, Smith told IDYGF’s two interviewers, the Wildrose Party is no longer interested in allowing marriage commissioners and medical professionals to opt out of portions of their jobs they feel go against their conscience.

These positions make eminent sense from Smith’s perspective. She was, is and always will be an economic neo-conservative, not particularly interested in social conservative shibboleths unless they happen to offer a useful wedge to get supporters of other parties to vote for her or stay at home on election day.

Moreover, as alert readers of this blog will recall, it was issues like so-called “conscience rights” and opposition to Premier Alison Redford’s plan to restore funding to gender-reassignment surgery that hit her party like a torpedo amidships in the final days of the campaign before the April 23 provincial election.

The most destructive blast of all, of course, came from the perfectly timed revelation of a blog post by Pastor Alan Hunsperger, the Wildrose candidate in Edmonton-South West, predicting that gay Albertans were certain to spend eternity in a lake of fire if they didn’t repent and forsake their ways.

But if Smith merely had a technocrat’s assessment of the Wildrose Party’s election chances in the Alberta of 2016 in mind when she spoke to IDYGF, the party’s social conservatives are bound to be outraged by what they will see as a flip-flop by the leader of a party that makes a major issue of the minutest changes in course by politicians they oppose.

Worse, from the so-cons’ perspective, Smith’s new positions are bound to be seen as a grave betrayal by a core group of voters who forsook Redford’s Progressive Conservative Party and the undoubted influence they enjoyed there for the promise the Wildrose Party would take a harder line on their raw-meat enthusiasms.

Indeed, it didn’t take long for the nattering nabobs of neo-conservatism to bare their teeth at Smith, juxtaposing their adolescent sarcasm with some of the more titillating bits from the IDYGF website.

And then there was Anderson — who is both widely seen as ambitious and a leader in the social-conservative wing of the party — in the pages of the highly partisan Edmonton Sun, telling Smith just to hold it right there a gol-darned minute.

Smith “respects the idea of free votes enough for her caucus to have a robust discussion,” Anderson said defiantly.

For her part, Smith tried in the IDYGF interview to have it both ways, and on conscience rights to blame the courts when that wouldn’t work. Really, she told her interviewers in a rambling answer, her objection to Redford’s announcement the day before the Premier spoke at Edmonton’s Pride Festival on June 10, was merely procedural.

“When the trans-gender surgery was funded once again, the concern that we had — and I had the same concern when it was defunded politically, they made a political decision to defund it, left a lot of people in the middle of their surgery, I thought that was inappropriate for them to make a unilateral political decision and the same way when they decided to find it again. …” Yadda-yadda.

A medical panel should make such decisions, she argued. At any rate, “that being said, now that it is funded, I think it would be inappropriate to make a political decision to defund it again. … My view is that the decision has been made and it should be left that way. … I will not defund.”

“That might be her view on it,” Anderson told the Sun, “but I’ve been clear, as long as we don’t have enough schools and we can’t balance that budget, it’s not something I’m going to support.”

Smith’s true bottom line on this issue, naturally, also slipped through in the IDYGF interview, although the social conservatives will pay it no heed: “I’ve always supported the right of people to seek this surgery. The question is, who pays for it?”

That is always the question that Smith asks when it comes to medical care, and her real answer is always: You, out of your own pocket.

Regardless, it’s said here, what’s really going to infuriate social conservatives like Anderson is not so much Smith’s change of course on these controversial issues, which after all at least makes sense from a strategic point of view, but the way she threw Pastor Hunsperger under the bus.

“His comments were so strident, his comments were so offensive, that there was no way he was going to be able to convince members of your community or the broader community at large that he would be that kind of representative,” that is an MLA who could represent his constituency’s entire population.

This amounts to another flip-flop, of course, because during the election campaign Smith refused to condemn Pastor Hunsperger and merely tried to sidestep the issue.

As has been said in this space many times, this conflict between social conservatives and economics-focused neo-conservatives is the biggest problem facing the Wildrose Party, and if Smith can’t deal with it, history will show her party reached its high tide of public support on or about April 20, 2012.

Arguably, she is the author of her own difficulties. Had she not been in such a hurry to get a full slate of candidates in place back in 2010, she would certainly have had better candidates as the party rose in the polls.

The bad news from her perspective was that by signing on candidates too quickly, she was stuck with goofballs like Pastor Hunsperger. From her perspective, the silver lining to that cloud could be that most of her worst candidates failed to get elected on April 23.

If she can’t keep this latest social conservative outbreak under control, however, it has the potential to tear the party asunder, with social conservatives founding a new and more extreme political party and economic conservatives returning to the big PC tent.

If she can keep a lid on it, and the economic conditions force the Conservatives to run big deficits as the next election approaches, she might survive to fight another day.

Most likely, though, this scrap between Danielle Smith and Rob Anderson is the beginning of the end of the Wildrose Party.

Photo: Dave Cournoyer/Flickr

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...