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How Alberta’s Wildrose is trying to be more moderate (starting with climate change)

Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith speaks to reporters in Calgary, Alta., Thursday, Jan. 24, 2013.

Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS

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Eighteen months ago, Alberta's Wildrose party lost the provincial election polls had predicted it would win. This week, the members of Alberta's Official Opposition party will converge to debate and perhaps dump the controversial policies that knocked their 2012 campaign off its stride.

The pressing question for the right-of-centre party is how it can broaden its appeal to Alberta's centrist voters – and have a hope at beating the province's dynastic Progressive Conservative government in the next election.

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"I think we learned a couple of lessons in the last election," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said in advance of the annual general meeting that begins Friday in Red Deer, Alta.

For much of the 2012 Alberta election campaign, polls indicated the Wildrose was on its way to forming the government. However, in the final days before the vote, the party's socially conservative policies – and candidates – scared Alberta electors. Although the policies and wildcard candidates may not be the sole reason the party lost the election, voters in many urban and northern Alberta ridings went back to the Tories.

The morning after election day, Ms. Smith said her party needed to do some "soul-searching," as some policies clearly gave some voters pause. "You can only govern with a mandate from the people, and if the people aren't interested in going a certain direction, you have to be the one to change," she told The Globe.

More specifically, it was the Wildrose party stance on issues including climate change, conscience rights and Alberta "firewall," items – such as the creation of a provincial pension plan or police force – that repelled more than it enticed. For instance, on climate change, the Wildrose policy in 2012 focused on what it said was a "still healthy scientific debate" about the extent to which humans are responsible – a point Progressive Conservatives jumped on in an attempt to show the Wildrose was politically naïve on the issue.

Scrutiny of the party's stance on social issues was amplified when two Wildrose candidates came under fire for remarks about race and same-sex relationships (one candidate, Allan Hunsperger, wrote before the campaign that homosexuals would spend eternity in a "lake of fire"). This week's annual general meeting will include the rollout of a longer and more detailed vetting process for party candidates.

For the Red Deer AGM, a number of constituency associations have also joined together to call for the party to scrap its policy of exploring the "feasibility of creating a provincial police force." The party's stand on conscience rights – a means of allowing health-care professionals and/or marriage commissioners to decline to provide services based on their beliefs – will also be under the microscope this weekend.

In a press conference in Edmonton this week, Ms. Smith said her party will focus on policies – such an increased focus on using more natural gas – to reduce greenhouse gases. However, she said she's not a scientist, and neither are party members, and she wouldn't ask her members to debate the issue of climate change.

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Ms. Smith said what is clear is the national and international community, and customers, are demanding that Alberta reduce its greenhouse gases, but "not through carbon taxes, not through cap-and-trade, not through burying carbon dioxide."

(And to drive the point home, Alberta's Environment Minister Diana McQueen held a special press availability on Thursday to say that Ms. Smith's current position on climate change shows a lack of leadership.)

She said a key policy resolution is one that calls for the Alberta Human Rights Commission to be maintained – a change for the party that had called for getting rid of the commission – but for the province's legislation to be amended to better protect free speech.

Although the next election won't be held until early 2016, opposition parties in Alberta sense an opening. The governing Progressive Conservatives got a bounce out of the government's handling of the southern Alberta floods in June, but are now struggling again in the polls. Premier Alison Redford faces a leadership review at her own party's convention next month, and it's far from clear what level of support she will receive from her members.

Still, the Wildrose needs to broaden its reach to have a hope of forming government. The party's support is based mainly in the rural southern half of the province, and a strong flow of newcomers to Alberta and an increasingly urbanization population means that it will be an uphill battle.

The party expects 400-500 people to attend the AGM. Vitor Marciano, a party stalwart who also serves as Ms. Smith's press secretary, said he believes more members would, under normal circumstances, be in Red Deer this weekend.

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But there's widespread political fatigue. Province-wide municipal elections were held Monday, and the federal Conservative convention in Calgary next week – which was originally scheduled for June, but had to be rescheduled due to the massive floods that hit southern Alberta – has drawn would-be attendees away.

"Of the 300 and some federal delegates who go to the (federal Conservative) convention, I'm willing to bet 250 of them are Wildrosers – and probably would go to ours, usually," Mr. Marciano said.

Ms. Smith is also giving a keynote address on Friday and will face the possibility of a leadership review – although it's not expected party members will ask for such a vote.

Kelly Cryderman reports from The Globe's Calgary bureau.

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