Wild Rose Country has been the slogan on the Alberta licence plate since 1973. ((CBC))

The debate over changing the slogan on Alberta's licence plates is being driven purely by political motivation, according to a provincial party leader.

The Alberta government set up a website for public comment on a new design to be unveiled in 2009. Last month, Service Alberta Minister Heather Klimchuk said based on comments from 33,000 people, the leading suggestions were to keep the current motto "Wild Rose Country" or to replace it with "Strong and Free."

"I think it's a golden opportunity to brand Alberta and do something innovative and fabulous to be proud of our province," Klimchuk said.

But George Read, leader of the Alberta Greens, disputes the motivation: "It has to do with the fact that the Wildrose Alliance has 'wild rose' in their name, and [the governing Progressive Conservatives] don't want a free ad on the back of everybody's car."

He points out the licence-plate issue didn't appear on Tory Premier Ed Stelmach's agenda until the Wildrose Alliance became a political party.

"I think Mr. Stelmach is scared, and I think it's funny."

The Wildrose Alliance espouses policies to the right of the governing Conservatives. It lost its only seat in the legislature in the March 3, 2008, provincial election.

Tory caucus will have final say

But Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal College dismisses that theory: "Oh come on. So if we have the Alberta Strong and Free party, we'll have to change slogans, again? I mean, that's getting really ridiculous."

Klimchuk has said the final decision on a new motto for the licence plates will be made by the Tory caucus.

"You're never going to make everybody happy, and I realize that, but I think that 'Strong and Free' … I think you like it or you don't like it. The 'Wild Rose Country' was a little more gentler approach to Alberta," she said.

Public opinion is split, but among Tory MLAs "Strong and Free" is the clear front-runner.

'Those are words that ring in the American national anthem, on American licence plates, in the American Declaration of Independence.' —David Taras, political scientist

"I think it captures the entrepreneurial spirit of Alberta and basically of the West in general," said Foothills-Rocky View MLA Ted Morton.

Lindsay Blackett, MLA for Calgary-North West, also likes it: "It doesn't mean we are taking a jab at anybody else. We are just saying that Alberta, we're strong, we're proud and we shouldn't have to apologize for that."

Some political watchers are worried it sends the wrong message.

"It wouldn't be so much a change of licence plate so much as a change in nationality," observed David Taras, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

"Because those are words that ring in the American national anthem, on American licence plates, in the American Declaration of Independence."

The plate's new look is expected to be unveiled in early 2009.

With files from Rick Donkers