Rise and fall of Alberta Wildrose party inextricably linked to Danielle Smith

EDMONTON — Danielle Smith appeared to be heading back to her political roots with Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives on Wednesday 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.

Rewind to 2008, when then-premier Ed Stelmach delivered another spend-heavy budget.

Rumours were flying that Smith, a rising PC star with business bona fides and a profile as a TV journalist, was going to jump to an upstart Tory splinter group.

Tory backbencher Rob Anderson was dispatched to talk her out of it.

Yes, he told her, Stelmach and his cabinet didn’t give a fig about the backbenchers, they spent tax dollars like drunken sailors and, yes, they had just voted themselves 30 per cent pay increases.

But they were the only game in town on the right side of the political spectrum.

Why are you going? he finally asked her.

Why are you staying? she shot back.

“This government is beyond redemption. It’s out of control,” Smith later told The Canadian Press she had informed Anderson.

“The only way we’re actually going to get a fiscally conservative government is to get behind this new party,” she told him.

Anderson learned that day that the lady was not for turning. She became Wildrose leader in 2009.

Two years later, Anderson crossed the floor and joined Smith’s team as her key lieutenant.

Smith and Anderson, by all accounts, were about to turn again Wednesday, this time back to the Tories under Premier Jim Prentice.

Smith had been eight years old when Thatcher took power in Britain in 1979 and launched a decade of belt-tightening fiscal reforms that left the Iron Lady both lionized and loathed.

Almost two decades later, Smith found herself tongue-tied when she met the grocer’s daughter from Grantham after a lecture at Vancouver’s Fraser Institute.

“I was pretty awestruck,” Smith recalled in an interview with The Canadian Press before the April 2012 provincial election.

She managed to blurt out a few words while Thatcher signed a copy of her book “Path to Power.”

“I just let her know how much I admired what she’d done. I’m pretty sure I would have told her I hoped to run for political office myself one day.”

Smith didn’t come to politics. It came to her when she was at junior high school in Calgary. She arrived home one day to recount how her teacher gushed about the virtues of communism.

Her dad had roots in Ukraine, where millions had died under Josef Stalin’s forced relocation-starvation schemes. Her father was apoplectic.

“He didn’t think communism was so great. He told my Grade 8 social studies teacher what he thought of what we were learning. Then he realized we needed to talk a lot more around the dinner table.”

Smith’s latent political interest flowered when she attended the University of Calgary in 1992 and walked past a soapbox at the so-called “Speakers Corner,” listening to the orations of extreme rightist Ezra Levant and then-Conservative MP Rob Anders.

Conservatism spoke to her. She was also entranced by the power of public speaking.

She joined the campus PC club and soaked in the teachings of “The Calgary School” of economists and political scientists, who advocated for free markets and small government.

There were Dale Carnegie courses on how to win friends and influence people. She attended Toastmasters, umming and ahhing her way through the crucible of impromptu speeches on surprise topics.

She studied John Locke, the 17th-century English philosopher who espoused the sanctity of individual liberty with government in a limited role.

She read Ayn Rand, the Russian émigré author of “Atlas Shrugged” and “The Fountainhead,” who argued that rational self-interest and a laissez-faire economy should light the way.

Property rights, Smith said, are sacrosanct because they are liberty’s floorboards.

“If you can’t own property, own your business, own your printing press, own your mosque or place of worship, can you really have any other freedoms?”

Post-university, Smith championed that philosophy. She fought on behalf of property rights groups, wrote editorials for the Calgary Herald, hosted a TV current affairs show and served as Alberta boss for the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

She won the Wildrose leadership in October 2009.

The Wildrose seeds had been sown by discontented hard-right Tories who had come together as the Alberta Alliance Party. But the movement lacked momentum and the party merged with the unregistered Wildrose in 2008. The new entity captured seven per cent of the popular vote in that year’s election.

Increasing frustration with the Tories in a cooling economy resulted in a surprise win for what was then called the Wildrose Alliance in a 2009 byelection.

But the Wildrose still lacked a charismatic face — until Smith was chosen as leader. The party’s popularity quickly grew as she criss-crossed the province, trying to put a progressive face on a group rooted in social conservatism.

Ultimately, it was a political high-wire act that Smith could never carry off.

Running against the scandals and broken promises of former premier Alison Redford, the Wildrose were on track, the opinion polls predicted, to win the April 2012 election, which would have smashed four consecutive decades of Tory government.

The naysayers scoffed. The Wildrose, they sniffed, were so-cons in progressive sheep’s clothing and not to be trusted. Just days before the vote, Smith gave those critics ammunition when she refused to ditch two candidates for homophobic and racist beliefs. One candidate warned gays to repent or face eternal damnation in hell’s “lake of fire.”

Victory turned to defeat. The Wildrose took 17 of the legislature’s 87 seats.

In the years that followed, the Wildrose was again ascendant as it helped expose scandals around Redford’s lavish spending on airplane flights and a personal penthouse suite.

Smith managed to keep her social conservatives in check, promising that centrism meant power.

But after Redford resigned, she was followed by Prentice — with his federal cachet and Wildrose-sympatico ideals. He won four byelections in October and that emboldened the social conservatives in Smith’s party to flex their muscles once again.

They struck a month ago, at the party’s annual general meeting in Red Deer.

While Smith was out of the room, the rank and file voted down a resolution that would have resulted in a Wildrose policy that supported equal rights for all minority groups, including homosexuals.

Critics said the Wildrose had taken a two-year step backward, that it was indeed a party not ready for prime time.

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 appeared ready to break her own vow. She was widely expected to take several of her remaining caucus members with her to the government benches and leave the fate of the party that flourished under her up in the air.

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