Mass MLA defection cripples Alberta’s Official Opposition
Jim Prentice Danielle Smith Staircase

Danielle Smith and Jim Prentice make a grande entrance at yesterday’s press conference at Government House.

Anyone already cynical about politics in Alberta will have their views reinforced with yesterday’s announcement that Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and eight of her party’s MLAs have abandoned their role as the Official Opposition and joined the 43-year governing Progressive Conservatives.

Danielle Smith Wildrose PC MLA

Danielle Smith

After a five hour meeting of the PC Caucus at Government House, Premier Jim Prentice and Ms. Smith walked side-by-side down the staircase to announce news that nine Wildrose MLAs had been accepted into the government caucus.

It was a shrewd move that could be a decisive win for Mr. Prentice in the Conservative Civil War that the two parties have waged against each other since the mid-2000s. But what led to this mass exodus of Wildrose MLAs?

Many political watchers, including myself, have pointed to Mr. Prentice’s leadership or the September 2014 by-election losses as catalysts for today’s news, but one long-time reader and observer of Alberta politics shared a different view:

“The Wildrose was not founded on political principles, like the fiscal conservatism of the Progressive Conservatives, or the social democracy of the New Democrats – but rather it was created, out of nothing, for the sole purpose of exerting political pressure on the PC government.”

Jim Prentice Premier Alberta

Jim Prentice

Since the disappearance of the Social Credit Party in the 1970s, Alberta has seen its share of conservative fringe parties, usually based in central or southern rural Alberta – including the Western Canadian Concept, the Representative Party, a short-lived SocCred revival in the mid-1990s and the Alberta First Party. The Alberta Alliance, which later became the Wildrose Alliance Party, transformed itself into something different.

While the Wildrose Party was founded on a social conservative base, the purpose of the party was to pull the meandering centrist Tories back to their conservative political roots. Over the past four years the Wildrose has excelled at using wedge issues like oil and gas royalties and property rights to drive the political agenda in Alberta.

Premier Ed Stelmach‘s meddling with natural resource royalties led the oil industry to quickly begin funnelling donations to the Wildrose, then led by a photogenic former school trustee named Danielle Smith. When the PCs abandoned plans to raise royalties, the Wildrose honed in on property rights and stirred up a considerable amount of fear and resentment among rural landowners, who were mostly traditional PC voters.

The nutty social conservatives proved to be the Wildrose’s greatest weakness in the 2012 election, costing the party a chance at forming government. But the many blunders of Alison Redford’s embarrassing government gave the Wildrose a renewed lease on life.

And now, with Mr. Prentice as leader of the PC Party, it has become difficult to point out significant policy differences between the two parties. By refusing to meddle in the marketplace, halting the poorly written Bill 10 and pledging to protect property rights, Mr. Prentice has robbed the Wildrose of their most effective critiques of the PC Party.

The Wildrose Party still exists with a significant campaign war chest and a membership role of 23,000. But it now lacks a leader, which the party executive says it will soon begin a search for. The steps taken by the party over the coming weeks could determine whether it can actually recover or whether it will join the list of conservative fringe parties after the next election.

Despite Ms. Smith’s agreement with new premier, the departure of the nine MLAs is a betrayal of the party’s hundreds of volunteers and donors and the more than 440,000 Albertans who voted Wildrose in the last election.

Life as an opposition MLA in Alberta is not glamorous, but as the Official Opposition, those nine MLAs played a critically important role in our parliamentary democracy. The timing and nature of the floor crossing reeks of political opportunism. And the quality of our democratic system will be weaker tomorrow with the loss of these nine opposition MLAs into the government backbenches.

The five remaining Wildrose MLAs will technically form the Official Opposition, but with their party in disarray, many political observers are watching to see if another political leader -NDP leader Rachel Notley – is able to form an effective opposition to the 43-year governing PC Party.

The nine Wildrose MLAs who crossed the floor to the PCs are:

Danielle Smith (Highwood)
Rob Anderson (Airdrie)
Gary Bikman (Cardston-Taber-Warner)
Rod Fox (Lacombe-Ponoka)
Jason Hale (Strathmore-Brooks)
Bruce McAllister (Chestermere-Rocky View)
Blake Pedersen (Medicine Hat)
Bruce Rowe (Olds-Didsbury-Three Hills)
Jeff Wilson (Calgary-Shaw)

I joined Ryan Jespersen on BT Edmonton this morning to talk about the Wildrose defections: