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Former Alberta cabinet minister joins Wildrose Alliance

Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, centre, is all smiles as she unveils the party's new logo to kick off the upstart provincial party's annual convention in Red Deer, Alta., Friday.

Randy Fielder/CP

After almost a year in political limbo, former Alberta Tory cabinet minister Guy Boutilier joined the rival Wildrose Alliance Friday, saying he finally feels ideologically at home.

Mr. Boutilier, introduced by Alliance Leader Danielle Smith at the start of the party's annual general meeting, becomes the third former member of the governing Progressive Conservatives to join its right-of-centre rival.

Mr. Boutilier had been sitting as an Independent for almost a year. He was kicked out of the government caucus by Premier Ed Stelmach last summer for publicly protesting government plans to postpone construction of a nursing home in his Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo riding.

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Mr. Boutilier said after talking to his constituents and the Wildrose Party, he made the move.

"It was just a natural flow," said Mr. Boutilier, who served in a number of cabinet portfolios, including aboriginal and municipal affairs.

"It [the expulsion]was the best thing that ever happened to me in my political career.

"As I talked to people in my riding, I asked for their honest opinions, what would be best for this region?

"They were very frank. An overwhelming number of people continued to point me in a clear direction. And that the Wildrose Party under the direction of Danielle Smith was the way to go."

Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, both from Calgary, are the other former Tories who have jumped ship.

Ms. Forsyth said crossing the floor is a gut-wrenching decision for any politician.

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"There's a lot of soul-searching, a lot of talking to constituents, a lot of talking to your supporters, but I can tell you I don't regret one moment since Jan. 4."

The announcement came as hundreds of Wildrose members convened for their annual general meeting. Party officials say there will be 700 people on hand, compared with 175 at the annual general meeting last year.

Members are to debate more than 40 motions, including a new provincial police force, cutting red tape on gun registry rules and a government funding voucher for grade-school students, that would essentially put private schools on the same footing as public schools when it comes to funding.

The party's platform is a mix of fiscal and social conservatism and direct democracy. It pushes for less deficit budgeting, right of recall for politicians, fixed election dates, social assistance tied to work and the staunch preservation of private property rights.

Ms. Smith has not committed to a riding yet, but said she will consider running as by-elections come up. Mr. Stelmach has said he won't call a general election until 2012.

Ms. Smith says if she doesn't run in a by-election, she's likely to seek office in her home riding of Calgary North Hill, which is currently represented by Tory Kyle Fawcett.

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Mr. Boutilier becomes the latest salvo in an increasingly bitter battle between Mr. Stelmach's Tories and the Alliance.

The Wildrose Alliance - an amalgamation of two fringe political right-wing parties - has begun to rocket up the popularity charts as a potential rival to the Tories, who have held power in Alberta for close to 40 years.

Paul Hinman won the party's first seat last year in a surprise by-election win in the Tory stronghold riding of Calgary Glenmore.

A month later Ms. Smith, a business leader and journalist, was elected party leader.

The party has been challenging Tory popularity in recent opinion polls - particularly in Calgary - as the government wrestles with massive deficits and a sluggish oil industry.

A number of high-profile Tory organizers have also bolted to Wildrose, led by Hal Walker, campaign chief for former premier Ralph Klein.

The Tories have battled back. Last week, Tory members on an all-party legislature committee used their majority to deny Wildrose a $233,000 research allowance. It's called a "leader's allowance," but the Tories noted that until Ms. Smith gains a seat in the house, she is not technically a leader.

Ms. Smith said Friday she wants to revisit that issue now that the Wildrose Alliance, with four members, qualifies as an official party in the legislature.

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