Moral issues dog Wildrose as Alberta election campaign enters final week

Personal views don't reflect policy: Smith

With a week to go in the most hard fought Alberta election campaign in decades, hot-button moral issues again put the front-running Wildrose party on the hot seat.

All four major party leaders were in Calgary on Sunday - a key battleground of the race - fanning out in visits to ethnic and religious communities, making new announcements and hammering home key points of their platform.

But it was Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith who attracted the most attention, refusing to condemn an online posting by one of her candidates decrying tolerance toward gays and lesbians, but reiterating that her party won't legislate on contentious moral issues.

In a June 2011 blog post, Edmonton-South West candidate Allan Hunsperger, a pastor with The House church in Tofield, referenced the Lady Gaga hit song Born this Way and said gay people can choose "to not live the way they were born."

"You can live the way you were born, and if you die the way you were born, then you will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering," he wrote, adding that "accepting people the way they are is cruel and not loving."

In the post, Hunsperger condemns the Edmonton Public School Board's policy calling for a safe and welcoming environment for all students, including those who identify as lesbian, gay and transgender.

Asked about the writing, Smith noted the party won't legislate on such social issues but said Hunsperger was free to hold his personal views.

"When a person is making personal statements in their capacity as a pastor, which he was, I don't think anybody should be surprised that they're expressing certain viewpoints," she said to reporters outside the Calgary Hindu Society's temple.

"We've communicated on this, that we will not be legislating on contentious social issues. He understands that. He accepts that."

When asked if there are personal opinions beyond the pale for the party, Smith did not directly answer.

"Look at our party platform. The things that we focus on are the things on which we agree," said Smith, who a day earlier had accused the media of being upset there had been no "bozo eruptions" among Wildrose candidates.

"We accept that people have a broad diversity of viewpoints but the way we get along is that we focus on the things on which we can agree."

By mid-afternoon, the blog post had been removed and Hunsperger had written a new entry addressing the issue, saying he had been speaking as a pastor about his personal religious viewpoints.

"I fully support equality for all people, and condemn any intolerance based on sexual orientation or any other personal characteristic," wrote Hunsperger.

Robyn Haugen, Hunsperger's campaign manager, said he was unable to talk Sunday.

Progressive Conservative Leader Alison Redford said Hunsperger's original comments were "shocking."

"I think that it's absolutely wrong. Of course I disagree with it, and the fact that these are people who think that that's a legitimate perspective just absolutely blows my mind," she told reporters at an event at Calgary's Sikh temple.

Redford said the situation speaks to who would make up a Wildrose government. "Take a look at who you want to represent you. What do they believe?"

Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he would not allow a Liberal candidate with Hunsperger's views to run for the party.

"I'm shocked and disappointed that a man of the cloth would make these comments," Sherman said at the McDougall Centre, where he proposed a revamp of the province's election system. "Jesus would not make these comments."

NDP Leader Brian Mason - in Calgary to talk about electricity regulation - said Smith had to answer for Hunsperger's statement.

"Do those comments by that candidate constitute an embarrassment to the Wildrose party and to her?" he said.

Since the writ was dropped, Smith - who describes herself as prochoice and pro-gay marriage - has had to fend off accusations the social conservative component within Wildrose would lead the party to wade into areas such as abortion and gay rights.

Faron Ellis, a political scientist at Lethbridge College, said Smith has done a skilful job with what have been "generic responses to generic situations."

But the tangible nature of Hunsperger's comments - and the fact they touch upon an area of provincial jurisdiction - may make it a lightning rod in the last week of the campaign, he said.

"She has to go further in some kind of condemnation of that type of statement," said Ellis, who noted Smith also does not want to alienate social conservative voters.

Meanwhile, Redford was supposed to hold an event Sunday afternoon with Alberta PC icon Peter Lougheed - who strongly backed Redford publicly two days earlier - but it had to be rescheduled.

Redford said she was touched by Lougheed's public endorsement and the party had not asked him to weigh in.

But Smith said it was "tragic that it was considered news for a former leader of the PC party to endorse the current leader of the PC party."

"We've put forward a positive campaign, talking about the issues that matter to Albertans. We're going to continue that in the last week."

Calgary Herald, Mon Apr 16 2012
Byline: James Wood, with files from Chris Varcoe and Bryan Weismiller and Sheila Pratt

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