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EDMONTON - Alberta's Opposition Wildrose party is taking steps this weekend to drain once and for all the "lake of fire" that torched its hopes of forming government in the last election.
Members at the party's annual meeting in Red Deer are to vote on several policy changes designed to dismantle platform planks that brought damning criticism last year that the party was ignorant and intolerant.
"We know that we've got some contentious policies that have to be debated," Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said at the party's legislature office Wednesday.
"Our members have identified six or seven policies that they either want to repeal or revise, so I'm looking forward to seeing how that debate goes."
The key changes involve sexual orientation, race, climate change, the human rights commission, conscience rights and citizen-initiated referendums.
The topics bedevilled Smith's party in the closing days of the April 2012 election campaign and scuttled what some were predicting was a strong chance at victory. The party ended up with 17 seats in the 87-seat legislature, while Premier Alison Redford led the Progressive Conservatives to another majority.
Smith was harshly criticized in particular for not tossing overboard two candidates for their statements on gays and race.
Edmonton candidate Allan Hunsperger made national headlines just days before the vote when it was revealed he had written a blog warning homosexuals that Satan was setting a "trap" for them and if they didn't change their ways, they would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell."
At the same time, it was revealed that Calgary candidate Ron Leech made comments that he was the best person to mediate concerns among multi-ethnic groups in his riding because "as a Caucasian, I believe that I can speak to all the community."
That brought accusations of racism at worst and, at best, chauvinistic "white man's burden" paternalism.
Smith said she didn't believe Leech was racist and suggested Hunsperger was free to speak his mind. She said Hunsperger's views did not reflect Wildrose thinking and wouldn't be acted upon in a Wildrose government.
At the weekend conference, one resolution urges the party to pledge to "defend the equality of all persons regardless of race, religion, gender or sexual orientation."
Smith said a policy forbidding discrimination against homosexuals or any other identifiable group is already in the platform, but she is OK with members wanting to "double affirm" it with a resolution.
The change is a good first step, said Kris Wells of the Institute for Sexual Minority Studies at the University of Alberta.
"It will show some lessons have been learned from the last election," said Wells. "It's a party that recognizes it must be much more moderate in its policies if it's going to claim to represent the majority of Albertans."
Smith said the party will also outline new rules on candidate selection.
A second issue that precipitated the Wildrose's late-campaign collapse was the party's position that the science of climate change was not settled.
Smith was roundly booed at one debate when she insisted "there is still a debate in the scientific community."
Redford capitalized quickly. She told Albertans that a premier who didn't believe in global warming would be an international laughingstock.
A number of proposed policy planks this weekend make clear the party's acceptance of global warming and its belief that action is needed to combat it.
One resolution urges the party work to "reduce greenhouse gases by advancing, implementing and co-operating on technology, research, conservation and alternative renewable energy sources."
Smith said her party needs to recognize the need for policies to reduce greenhouse gases, but fenced with reporters when asked if she believes climate change exists.
"I'm not a scientist. My opinion is that, as a political leader, I recognize we have an obligation to reduce greenhouse gases and toxic emissions."
She was also criticized on the campaign trail for advocating conscience rights, a belief that people can rightly refuse to carry out duties as professionals if those duties conflict with moral or religious beliefs. In some jurisdictions, that has led to nurses and doctors refusing to assist with abortions and justices of the peace refusing to marry gays.
Delegates will vote to delete a policy that the party will, if elected, implement conscience rights for health-care workers. Members will also vote to replace it with a promise to "defend the fundamental charter right to freedom of conscience and religion for health-care professionals and all other Albertans."
They'll also vote to rescind a promise to dismantle the Alberta Human Rights Commission. The Wildrose ran in the last election on dismantling the commission. It dismissed human rights tribunals as "kangaroo courts" presided over by unqualified people delivering unsound judgments based on "preconceived agendas and an almost fanatical devotion to political correctness."
Smith promised during the campaign that human rights issues would be handled by a division of the provincial court, but she found it challenging to act on defending the principle of human rights by doing away with the commission.
Delegates will now vote on whether to keep the commission, but reform the complaints procedure "to introduce new rules of evidence, the presumption of innocence and protection from frivolous and vexatious claims."
Political scientist Keith Brownsey said all the proposed changes to the party's social policies risk alienating the rural base that forms the bedrock of Wildrose support.
"It's a huge gamble," said Brownsey of Mount Royal University in Calgary.
"It's to make them more palatable to the broad mushy centre of the political spectrum."
Brownsey and Wells said the Wildrose has a lot of work to do to erase past doubts.
"What did our parents always tell us?" suggested Brownsey.
"First impressions are important."
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