For four years, Progressive Conservatives told Albertans not to trust those kooky and scary Wildrosers. At the same time, the Wildrosers told Albertans not to trust those crooked and corrupt PCs. Today, it now appears that the leaders of the two parties have now put the past four years behind them and are joining forces.
Following a Tuesday, Dec. 16 caucus meeting, it is being reported that six of the Wildrose Official Opposition’s 14 MLAs, including leader Danielle Smith, have decided to leave their party to join the 43-year governing PC. Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell reported yesterday that PC leader Jim Prentice offered a “Reunification Agreement” as incentive to his opposition colleagues.
The governing PC Caucus will meet on Wednesday, Dec. 17 and are expected to discuss the acceptance of the six MLAs into their ranks. The addition of the six would bring the total number of Tories to 69 of 87 MLAs in the Assembly. The remaining eight Wildrose MLAs would remain Official Opposition.
The Edmonton Journal’s Graham Thomson reports that a cabinet shuffle could happen as early as Thursday to make room for the new MLAs.
Some sources say that Ms. Smith could become Mr. Prentice’s Deputy Premier and Mr. Anderson, a former PC MLA who joined the Wildrose in 2010, could be appointed to a senior ministry. Another potential cabinet appointment could be former Wildrose MLA Kerry Towle, who crossed the floor earlier this month.
Once source speculated that current PC ministers like Kyle Fawcett or Maureen Kubinec could be shuffled out of cabinet to make room for their new caucus-mates.
The phenomonally rapid collapse of the Wildrose Party raises questions about the unstable foundation of the party. Splits in the party became public after the loss of four by-elections and as Ms. Smith battled with party’s activists over an equality motion and her position in the Gay-Straight Alliances debate.
Just six months ago, the Wildrose Party was out-fundraising and outpolling the 43-year governing PCs. Only three months since becoming PC leader, Mr. Prentice has been able to demoralize, destabilize and now co-opt his main opposition.
The departure of the six could damage the Wildrose Party beyond repair and remove it as a viable political force in Alberta, at least in the short-term. Whatever your opinion of the party, the floor crossings are certainly a betrayal of the hundreds of thousands of voters who cast a ballot for Wildrose candidates in order to send the PCs a message.
Wildrose Party activists are pledging to fight any formal merger between the two parties, but the loss of high-profile leader Ms. Smith is a death-blow to the party.
The loss of Ms. Smith to the government benches and the crippling of her soon to be former party is also a blow to democracy in Alberta. After coming very close to winning the 2012 election, the Wildrose have been the most effective and aggressive opposition parties in recent memory. Their work exposed corruption and cronyism in the government and ended the careers of premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.
It is unclear who will replace Ms. Smith as leader of the Official Opposition, but candidates could includeShayne Saskiw or Drew Barnes. Neither have the provincial profile of their predecessor.
While the blow to the Wildrose could rob the non-conservative opposition parties of a conservative vote split in the next election, the decline of the Wildrose creates opportunities for other opposition leaders. This is especially true for new NDP leader Rachel Notleyand Alberta Party leader Greg Clark, who now have an opportunity to present an alternative vision to Mr. Prentice’s (and Ms. Smith’s) 43-year governing PC Party.
Are more Wildrose MLAs preparing to cross the floor to the Progressives Conservatives? Independent MLA Joe Anglin has told reporters that Danielle Smith‘s 14 MLA Wildrose Official Opposition Caucus will vote on Tuesday, December 16, 2014 on whether to join the governing PC Caucus.
Mr. Anglin’s comments, claims published on an anonymously blog and tweets from conservative activists fuelled the rumours of the Wildrose Party’s demise on social media last night.
The sources of the rumours are questionable, but the curious silence of official Wildrose Party social media accounts suggests that the merger of the two caucuses could indeed be on the table when Wildrose MLAs meet on Dec. 16.
More reliable sources say that Mr. Anderson and Mr. Saskiw will make a presentation to their fellow MLAs on Dec. 16 detailing an offer extended by Mr. Prentice to Wildrose MLAs to join the PC Caucus. [Update: The Calgary Sun’s Rick Bell has obtained a copy of the “Reunification Agreement.”]
This is not the first time we have heard rumours of a merger. In May 2014, Ms. Smith told reporters that then-PC leadership candidate Jim Prentice had proposed a merger of the two conservative parties. At the time, Premier Dave Hancock denied the claims, but it was clear that Mr. Prentice was reaching out to Wildrose MLAs.
Since becoming Premier, Mr. Prentice has robbed the Wildrose of its most effective talking points by committing to focus on property rights and reversing many of former premier Alison Redford‘s most unpopular decisions. In some ways, it is now difficult to tell what differentiates the Wildrose Party from Mr. Prentice’s PCs.
After losing four by-elections in October 2014 and losing three MLAs since then, the normally loud Wildrosers have toned down, and in some cases struck a more conciliatory tone with the governing PCs.
Even normally hyper-partisan Justice Minister Jonathan Denistweeted about working with Mr. Anderson on a Wildrose Caucus amendment to Bill 2: Alberta Accountability Act. If that does not signal a warming of relations between the two caucuses, I’m not sure what else would.
But despite the party’s recent poor showing, a Wildrose Party led by Ms. Smith could still remain competitive going into the next election.
The party has collected an impressive war chest and has nominated candidates in more than a quarter of Alberta’s constituencies. Recent polls show the party sitting at 29% support, only five points behind Mr. Prentice’s PCs.
The question is whether the change in tone signals a new strategy or preparation for a merger with the 43-year governing PC Party? If there is truth to the merger rumours, the departure of more Wildrose MLAs (including Ms. Smith) would be a death blow to that party.
What would a Wildrose-PC Caucus merger mean?
MLAs crossing the floor is a fairly common occurrence in Alberta and Canadian politics, but I cannot think of any time when an Official Opposition Caucus has voted to merger with a governing caucus.
Unlike the merger of the federal Canadian Alliance and PC Party that created the Conservative Party of Canada in 2003, there is little to no chance another party will form government in the next election (in the context of 2003, a PC-Wildrose merger would be more like Stephen Harper‘s Canadian Alliance joining Paul Martin‘s Liberal Party).
In a scenario where nearly all the Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to the PC Party, Raj Sherman‘s five MLA Liberal Caucus could regain its role as the Official Opposition. But the Liberals would only hold that title until MLAs Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang resigned to run in the October 2015 federal election. Upon their resignations, Rachel Notley‘s four MLA NDP Caucus could become the Official Opposition.
Wikipedia defines a Gay-Straight Alliance as student-led organizations that are intended to provide a safe, supportive environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) youth and their straight allies. A recent study from the University of British Columbia found that Canadian schools with GSAs may reduce the odds of suicidal thoughts and attempts among both sexual minority and straight students.
Here is a simple timeline following the ongoing provincial debate around these student clubs in Alberta schools:
“Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the government to introduce legislation, like Manitoba’s and Ontario’s, requiring all school boards to develop policies to support students who want to lead and establish gay-straight alliance activities and organizations, using any name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and respectful for all students regardless of sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity.”
A coalition of 31 Progressive Conservative and Wildrose MLAs vote down Motion 503. Nineteen Liberal, NDP and PC MLAs, including PC anti-bullying Minister Sandra Jansen vote in favour of the motion.
October 15, 2014: Liberal MLA Laurie Blakemanannounces plans to introduce a private members’ bill to mandate school boards to develop policies to support students who start a gay-straight alliance in their schools by offering meeting space and benefits given to other clubs.
November 15, 2014: At the party’s annual policy convention, Wildrose members reject a ‘definitive’ statement on equality. Party members voted against adopting as policy a statement affirming the rights for everyone regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, and other differences.
November 22, 2014: Attending the annual Gay-Straight Alliances conference at the University of Alberta, Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson speaks in favour of Bill 202. “People don’t all come in the same shapes and sizes, colours and genders so it is important that a space everyone is compelled to go to as part of their education makes space for everyone,” Mr. Iveson told reporters.
November 27, 2014: At a hastily called press conference, Mr. Prentice declares that Ms. Blakeman’s bill was no longer needed because he plans to introduce his own bill dealing with Gay-Straight Alliances. Arguing in favour of ‘parental rights,’ Mr. Prentice says his bill will allow school boards to decide whether GSAs should be allowed. If students are turned down, Mr. Prentice says they can take legal action against their school boards. It is suspected that Mr. Prentice’s bill was not yet written at this time.
December 2, 2014: Bill 10 passes second reading and procedurally removes Bill 202 from the legislative order paper. Forty-two PC and Wildrose MLAs vote in favour and 9 opposition MLAs, including Ms. Blakeman, Ms.Smith, NDP leader Rachel Notley and Liberal leader Raj Sherman, vote against the bill.
Only one PC MLA, Thomas Lukaszuk, votes against it. “I simply do not believe in incremental granting of human rights,” Mr. Lukaszuk told the media. “We didn’t give women half a vote, we gave them a full vote during the suffrage debate.”
Ms. Jansen introduces an amendment that opposition parties say will simply segregate gay students and move their support groups out of schools entirely. “That student now does not have to go to the court, they come to the Alberta ministry of education and we provide that GSA for them, and hopefully within the school environment,” Jansen said in the Assembly. “But if that is impossible, we’ll make sure they get that GSA regardless.” Education Minister Mr. Dirks was silent during this debate and Mr. Prentice was not in attendance.
The amendment passes with the support of 38 PC MLAs, including Mr. Dirks. PC MLAs Doug Griffiths, Mr. Donovan and Mr. Lukaszuk join with 14 opposition MLAs and vote against the amendment. PC MLA Jason Luan spoke against Bill 10, but was absent during the vote on the amendment.
December 4, 2014: Former PC MLA and Senator Ron Ghittertells the Calgary Herald he is disappointed in the “backwards” legislation put forward by Mr. Prentice’s government to deal with the issue of gay-straight alliances in schools.
BT Edmonton host Ryan Jespersen uses his platform on the popular morning television program to castigate PC MLAs for their support of Bill 10.
Popular artists Tegan and Sarah published a post on their blog against Bill 10 and well-known Canadian entertainer Rick Mercer also takes aim at Mr. Prentice’s Bill 10 and his position on gay rights.
“Rights are never absolute,” Prentice told reporters. Nice ring to it Jim maybe that should be on the licence plate. #Bill10#cdnpoli
A number of PC Party members announce their resignations from positions in their party in opposition to Bill 10. Calgary-Bow PC association President Josh Traptowannounced he resigned in order to speak out against Bill 10. Former Calgary City Council candidate Chris Harper announced on Twitter that he left the PC Party and resigned from his local PC constituency association. And Brenda Meneghetti, campaign manager for former leadership candidate Ken Hughes, announced she has left the PC Party because of Bill 10.
After facing four-days of widespread opposition and condemnation, Mr. Prentice announces at a hastily arranged press conference that he is putting Bill 10 on hold and that is postponing the third reading vote on the controversial bill.
“Bill 10 has added to, rather than resolved these divisions, and I accept personal responsibility for that as the premier,” Mr. Prentice told reporters. Following Mr. Prentice’s backtrack on Bill 10, Ms. Blakeman announced plans to ask the Legislature to resurrect her original Bill 202.
Under the guise of protecting school board rights, Mr. Prentice’s soon to be introduced bill would add sexual orientation to the list of prohibited grounds of discrimination in the Alberta Bill of Rights while continuing to allow individual school boards to decide whether the student GSA clubs can exist.
This would allow publicly funded religious schools, like Catholic school boards, the power to deny students the ability to create safer and more welcoming environments for their sexual minority classmates. Essentially, if a school board votes to discriminate against students for religious reasons, it is okay.
Although Mr. Prentice’s bill has not yet been made public, it is expected to allow some recourse for students. If students feel their attempts to create GSAs were unjustly blocked, they can take legal action against the school boards. That is correct, Mr. Prentice’s bill could force schools kids to hire lawyers to fight school board decisions.
Unsurprisingly, there was a lot of outrage on social media against Mr. Prentice’s bill. But Ms. Blakeman’s bill was never likely going to pass in the first place.
It is not hard to see what Mr. Prentice is doing. He is a shrewd politician and he is trying to play both sides of the debate with the next election in mind. On one side, he cannot afford to allow Ms. Blakeman to make his party look like a group of backward social conservatives by not supporting her bill. At the same time, he is trying to appeal to those same backward social conservatives who want him to oppose her bill.
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith may have created an opening for Mr. Prentice to appeal to these social conservative voters when she openly suggested her party’s MLAs would vote in favour of Ms. Blakeman’s bill.
Before the Premier’s announcement, Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson had introduced a series of amendments to the Liberal bill that would have watered down sections considered the most offensive to social conservatives.
After you wade through the politics on all sides of this issue, it is important to remember what this debate is really about: whether individual students can, without interference from narrow-minded school administrators, board politicians or parents, create clubs that are proven to help make school environments more safe and welcoming for some of their classmates.
The floor-crossings come at the end of a tumultuous month for Danielle Smith’s Wildrose Party, which began with the sting of defeat in four by-elections and the departure of Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre MLA Joe Anglin, who now sits as an Independent MLA.
Ms. Smith tried to demonstrate her party had modernized at its recent annual meeting but was sideswiped by angry conservative activists, who voted down a motion recognizing equality for specific minority groups and then blamed the media for the party’s poor reputation.
The loss of three MLAs in such a short period of time raises questions about Ms. Smith’s future as leader. As the party’s most recognizable face, she is one of her party’s strongest assets. But if more MLAs decide to leave her caucus and the internal turmoil continues, will her leadership survive until the next general election?
Since becoming PC Party leader in September, Mr. Prentice has strived to distance his party from the toxic memory of Alison Redford and Ed Stelmach. He has skillfullyrobbed the Wildrose of its strongest talking points by proposing the repeal of unpopular property rights laws, stalling the closure of the Michener Centre, announcing the sale of the government’s fleet of airplanes, firing cabinet ministers too closely associated with the previous leader and a handful of other lightening rod issues.
He also has deep roots in Canada’s Conservative establishment, serving as a federal cabinet minister in Ottawa and as a bank executive on Bay Street. And the PCs are using Mr. Prentice’s Tory credibility to invite former Tory supporters in the Wildrose party back under their big tent.
Mr. Prentice has started strong and still has plenty of time to stumble, especially with the prospect of declining natural resource revenues, which leads me to believe a provincial election may come sooner than the fixed date of Spring 2016.
The temptation to take advantage of a crumbling official opposition, which could lead to a lack of vote splitting among conservative voters might be too appealing to resist (a bad sign for the NDP, Alberta Party and Liberals). If there is one thing that is true of Alberta politics, it is that the PC Party knows how to consolidate and preserve its own power.
As Ms. Smith’s party struggles through a tough month, they need to figure out what fundementally differentiates them from the PC Party led by Mr. Prentice. One conservative strategist – Ken Boessenkool – has once again raised the idea of a potential merger of the two parties to create the “Conservative Party of Alberta.”
Despite its bleak prospects in the immediate future, political fortunes can shift quickly. But if the party’s fortunes do not improve soon, more MLA floor-crossings may follow.
Wildrose knows about floor-crossing
Floor-crossing is a familiar activity for the Wildrose Party, but they are used to it going the other way. In 2010, the Wildrose received a big boost when then-PC MLAs Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth left Mr. Stelmach’s PC Party to join Ms. Smith’s upstart party. Not long afterward, they were joined by former PC MLA Guy Boutilier, who had been sitting as an Independent MLA.
Over the course of its 43 years of uninterrupted power, one of the great successes of the PC Party has been its ability to build a big tent that includes individuals of all sorts of political persuasions. The two former Wildrose MLAs will now find themselves in the same caucus as two former Liberal MLAs who also crossed the floor to the PCs – Speaker Gene Zwozdesky and Lethbridge-East MLA Bridget Pastoor.
Over the past 25 years, there have been a total of six Liberal MLAs, one Representative Party MLA and one New Democrat MLA who have crossed the floor to the PCs. The lone NDP floor-crosser, Stony Plain MLA Stan Woloshyn, made himself comfortable in the Tory Party ranks as a Ralph Klein-era cabinet minister.
Manitoba is the only province that currently prohibits MLAs from crossing the floor. If an MLA wishes to leave their party, they must step down and run in a by-election or sit as an Independent MLA until the next election.
A short few months ago, it almost felt inevitable that the Wildrose Party would sweep into a majority government at the next election. Their support in the polls was skyrocketing and the 43-year governing Progressive Conservatives looked corrupt, broken and battered. But over the past few weeks, it appears the Official Opposition is stumbling into disarray.
Leader Danielle Smith’s plans to reenergize her party after its four recent by-election loses were sabotaged by social conservative party activists who rallied to reject a motion in support of equality at the party’s recent annual meeting. The defeated motion would have pledged the Wildrose to defend the rights of all people, “regardless of race, religious belief, colour, gender, physical disability, mental disability, age, ancestry, place of origin, marital status, source of income, family status or sexual orientation of that person or class of persons.” The vote has cast a shadow over the party.
After spending two years trying to distance herself from the “Lake of Fire” comments that cost the Wildrose its chance of winning the last election, it appears that Ms. Smith is back to square one.
The defeat of the motion led Terrence Lo, the party’s vice-president in Calgary-Glenmore, to publicly resign.
“This vote confirmed to me that the misguided angry beliefs of a minority of the rank and file holds actual sway in party policy,” Mr. Lo wrote on his blog.
Lawyer Chris Bataluk, who ran for the Wildrose in Edmonton-Decore in the 2012 election, posted a stinging critique of his now former party on Facebook today.
“At this point I feel that the Wildrose Party was a noble but failed experiment,” Mr. Bataluk wrote. “It is of little joy to participate in a party that allows itself to be branded as the party of backward homophobes.”
Mr. Bataluk also noted that he did not renewed his party membership when it expired in August 2014.
Mr. Bataluk’s Facebook post was notably “liked” by Little Bow Wildrose MLA Ian Donovan. Mr. Donovan’s colleague, Joe Anglin, recently left the Wildrose Caucus to sit as an Independent MLA, citing an internal civil war.
The opposition party’s sudden turn is an important reminder of how quickly a party, or a leader’s, political fortunes can turn from good to worse.
Ms. Smith still has time to turn her party’s fortunes around, but the Wildrose Party is increasingly beginning to look like a flash in the pan. The party has a dedicated base of supporters and has shown its ability to raise significant amounts of money, but it now struggles to find relevance in a post-Alison Redford political environment. Can the Wildrose Party be more than a protest party?
While PC Premier Jim Prentice is still surrounded by many of the MLAs and party activists who stood loyally with Ms. Redford until her spectacular end, he has skillfully distanced himself from his predecessor’s legacy. The PC Party is once again masterfully attempting to reinvent itself in the image of its new leader.
After 43 years in power, it seems that anytime an opposition party gets close to defeating the PCs, they soon get knocked out. Not long after Laurence Decore led the Liberal Party to near victory in 1993, infighting and floor crossing destroyed any opportunity of a second chance at unseating the PCs.
Perhaps a sign of the PC Party’s versatility are two key players from Mr. Decore’s 1993 surge who now sit comfortably in the government ranks. Former Liberal MLA Mike Percy is now Mr. Prentice’s Chief of Staff and Gene Zwozdesky, first elected as a Liberal MLA, is now a PC MLA and the Speaker of the Assembly.
Those disenchanted Tories took a big political risk when they stepped out of line with Alberta’s Natural Governing Party to help start the Wildrose. The dangerous question for Ms. Smith is whether they are beginning to regret making that choice?
In a move designed to quash any further internal party dissent, Wildrose MLAs rallied around their leader yesterday by unanimously requesting their party’s executive committee cancel a leadership review that Danielle Smith requested last week.
The sign of caucus unity came shortly after Sundre-Rocky Mountain House-Rimbey MLA Joe Anglin announced he was leaving the Official Opposition Caucus to sit as an Independent MLA.
Ms. Smith requested the review in response to the Wildrose Party’s poor showing in four by-elections held on October 27. Although the by-elections were held in traditionally safe Progressive Conservative voting constituencies, they were seen by many political watchers as a mid-term review for the 43-year governing PC Party, now led by Jim Prentice.
Will the sign of caucus support for Ms. Smith’s leadership put an end to the Wildrose “civil war” between pragmatic and ideological conservatives that Mr. Anglin referred to in a Facebook post yesterday?
From the outside, it is difficult to tell whether an actual “civil war” is being waged. Mr. Anglin has always been more comfortable as a political lone-wolf and his departure was not unexpected. And despite the party’s sometimes uneasy coalition of libertarian and social conservatives, it is reasonable to believe Ms. Smith would still receive a strong endorsement from party members in a leadership review (she received 90% approval in a 2013 review).
But the entrance of Mr. Prentice onto the political stage may have slightly shifted the ground in Alberta’s conservative movement. As the by-election results suggest, there are many conservative voters comfortable with a PC Party led by Mr. Prentice and, at the very least, they willing to give him a chance.
Mr. Prentice does pose a serious challenge for the Wildrose Party, which made former Premier Alison Redford into political lightening rod. And while the sting of Ms. Redford’s legacy did not resonate in the by-elections, the recent announcement of an R.C.M.P investigation into her alleged misdeeds may reignite Albertans anger.
It is difficult to imagine who would replace the Wildrose Party’s high-profile leader. Although MLAs Kerry Towle, Bruce McAllister, Shayne Saskiw, Heather Forsyth and Rob Anderson have some provincial profile, none are as recognizable as their current leader. I would guess that most Albertans would struggle to name a Wildrose MLA other than Ms. Smith.
Whether a “civil war” is actually underway, it is clear that the Ms. Smith’s Wildrose Party is facing an identity crisis in a post-Redford political environment.
Political Calgary is abuzz with rumours that popular MLA Kent Hehr will seek the Liberal nomination in the federal riding of Calgary-Centre. Reliable sources say that Mr. Hehr has gone so far as to request nomination forms to become an official nomination candidate for the federal Liberals.
A well-respected lawyer before he entered politics, the likeable Mr. Hehr has represented the downtown Calgary-Buffalo constituency as a Liberal since the 2008 election. The Liberal Finance and Energy critic briefly ran for mayor in 2010, bowing out and endorsing Naheed Nenshi before nomination day. Mr. Nenshi’s campaign manager in that election and now his chief of staff Chima Nkemdirim also managed Mr. Hehr’s first election campaign in 2008 (Mr. Nkemdirim has also has been rumoured as a potential Liberal candidate in the same riding).
In December 2012, Mr. Hehr stirred up some controversy within his party when he wrote a guest post on this blog suggesting that the narrow Conservative win in the Calgary-Centre by-election should send a wake up call to Liberals, NDP and Greens in this province.
Perhaps trying to appeal to a more conservative base of supporters, Mr. Hehr was pictured alongside Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson this week signing a “no-debt” pledge from the Tea Party-lite Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
He would not be the only Liberal MLA planning to jump into federal politics in the next election. Calgary-McCall MLA Darshan Kang was recently nominated as the federal Liberal candidate in the north east Calgary’s new Calgary-Skyview riding. If both Liberal MLAs are nominated, they would each be required to resign as MLAs when a federal election is called, leaving the Liberals with only three MLAs in the Assembly (and for the first time since before the 1993 election, with less MLAs than the New Democratic Party, which currently has four MLAs).
Other MLAs running for federal nominations are Edmonton-McClung PC MLA David Xiao, who is seeking the federal Conservative nomination in the new Edmonton-West riding, and Independent Calgary-Foothills MLA Len Webber, who is running for the Conservative nomination in the new Calgary-Confederation riding.
Attempts were made to contact Mr. Hehr in order to confirm and comment on the rumours of his potential candidacy in Calgary-Centre. No response had been received at the time this post was published.
UPDATE (July 17, 2014): As predicted in this post, Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr has announced he will run for the federal Liberal nomination in Calgary-Centre.
Be it resolved that the Legislative Assembly urge the Government to introduce legislation, like Manitoba’s and Ontario’s, requiring all school boards to develop policies to support students who want to lead and establish gay-straight alliance activities and organizations, using any name that is consistent with the promotion of a positive school environment that is inclusive, welcoming, and respectful for all students regardless of sexuality, sexual orientation, or gender identity.
It was a simple motion introduced on the floor of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly on April 7, 2014 that would help create safer environments for students in schools. Nineteen Liberal, New Democrat, and Progressive Conservative MLAs voted in favour of the motion, but it failed after 31 PC and Wildrose MLAs stood up and voted against it.
Motion 503, introduced by Calgary-Buffalo MLA Kent Hehr, was not a piece of binding legislation, it was a symbolic message of that all students, regardless of sexual orientation or identity, can be welcomed and accepted in Alberta’s education system.
Creating safe and supportive environments for all students, including LGBTQ youth who may face discrimination in and outside of school, should be something that is encouraged by MLAs.
Mr. Hehr’s motion undoubtably would have made some social conservatives uncomfortable, but it would have ultimately helped drag some of Alberta’s more stodgy school boards into the 21st century. The motion would not have forced any school board to form student-led gay-straight alliances, but it would have compelled the elected boards to accept the existence of the groups if students in their schools chose to organize them.
Passage of this motion would have sent a strong message that tolerance and acceptance are priorities Alberta’s provincial legislators.
Missing from the vote were Premier Dave Hancock and NDP leader Brian Mason, who both later said they would have voted in favour had they been in the Assembly. Wildrose opposition leader Danielle Smith was not present for the vote and it is not clear if she would have voted differently than her party’s MLAs.
The divided PC government caucus also missed an opportunity to send a clear message that they embrace 21st century values by singling out the opposition Wildrose as the only party to unanimously vote against the motion – and remind Albertans of the infamous Lake of Fire. And for the Wildrose, a vote for the motion, even by one or two of that party’s MLAs, would have done a lot of demonstrate the party is more moderate on social issues than its opponents claim.
In total, 36 MLAs were absent from the vote (minus the Speaker, who abstains from votes of the Assembly).
Voted in Favour: 19
Deron Bilous (NDP)
Laurie Blakeman (LIB)
Neil Brown (PC)
Pearl Calahasen (PC)
Cal Dallas (PC)
Alana DeLong (PC)
David Eggen (NDP)
Kyle Fawcett (PC)
Kent Hehr (LIB)
Ken Hughes (PC)
Sandra Jansen (PC)
Heather Klimchuk (PC)
Jason Luan (PC)
Thomas Luksazuk (PC)
Rachel Notley (NDP)
Don Scott (PC)
Raj Sherman (LIB)
David Swann (LIB)
Teresa Woo-Paw (PC)
Voted against: 31
Moe Amery (PC)
Rob Anderson (WR)
Drew Barnes (WR)
Gary Bikman (WR)
Robin Campbell (PC)
Ron Casey (PC)
Christine Cusanelli (PC)
Ian Donovan (WR)
David Dorward (PC)
Wayne Drysdale (PC)
Jacquie Fenske (PC)
Rick Fraser (PC)
Yvonne Fritz (PC)
Hector Goudreau (PC)
Jeff Johnson (PC)
Linda Johnson (PC)
Maureen Kubinec (PC)
Genia Leskiw (PC)
Bruce McAllister (WR)
Everett McDonald (PC)
Diana McQueen (PC)
Frank Oberle (PC)
Bridget Pastoor (PC)
Dave Rodney (PC)
Bruce Rowe (WR)
Shayne Saskiw (WR)
Richard Starke (PC)
Rick Strankman (WR)
Kerry Towle (WR)
George VanderBurg (PC)
Greg Weadick (PC)
Because politics are unpredictable, forecasting the future can be a tricky business for pundits, but here is a list of a dozen Alberta MLAs worth watching in 2014.
Manmeet Bhullar (Calgary-Greenway): An up and comer in the PC ranks, Mr. Bhullar was rewarded for his time as the competent Service Alberta minister with an appointment as the minister of the downsized Human Services department. Tasked with the difficult challenge of spinning hundreds of foster care deaths into a positive story for the government, Mr. Bhuller is already on his way to becoming a media darling.
Deron Bilous (Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview): A rising star in the 4 member NDP caucus, the 38 year old first-term MLA has proven himself to be a well-spoken addition to the opposition benches. Entering his second year in the Assembly, Mr. Bilous could become a more prominent public face for his party. It is no surprise that he is continually named by New Democrats as a future leader of Alberta’s tiny and scrappy social democratic party.
Kent Hehr (Calgary-Buffalo): Serving his second-term as the MLA representing downtown Calgary, the talented Mr. Hehr is faced with a difficult question: are his political talents best served by sticking with the stuck-in-the-mud Liberal Party? His 2012 guest post on this blog supporting cooperation by centre-left parties caused a stir but was quickly shot down by his party’s leadership. With Alberta’s five Liberal MLAs acting more like a group of independents who share office space than representatives of a unified political movement, I wouldn’t be shocked if Mr. Hehr considers his alternatives in 2014.
Doug Horner (Spruce Grove-St. Albert): As Alberta’s Finance minister, Mr. Horner is tasked to deliver the Redford Government’s 2014 budget. An already expected budget deficit will be intensified as the government directs billions of dollars towards fixing the damage caused by last summer’s floods in southern Alberta. His future leadership aspirations could be at risk as he tries to balance funding for public programs with pressure from the conservative right to cut spending in Canada’s wealthiest province.
Fred Horne (Edmonton-Rutherford): As Health minister, Mr. Horne has imposed drastic administrative changes in Alberta Health Services, including firing the entire AHS board of directors and overseeing the departure of two consecutive AHS CEOs. Confusion inside the health care system has intensified as he continues to assert more political control over the province-wide health authority. It remains unclear what Mr. Horne’s new political control means for AHS. Maybe Albertans will find out in 2014?
Ken Hughes (Calgary-West): A close confident of Alison Redford, the former Energy minister was shuffled to Municipal Affairs to quell conflict created by the previous minister with rural leaders and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. Having returned to electoral politics in 2012 after a 19 year hiatus (he served as the PC MP for Macleod from 1988 to 1993), he faces the challenge of fulfilling the province’s promise to create special big city charters for Calgary and Edmonton.
Thomas Lukaszuk (Edmonton-Castle Downs): As deputy premier and Advanced Education minister during last year’s budget cuts, Mr. Lukaszuk became the Redford government’s most recognizable face in the media. Now as Minister of Jobs, Skills, Training and Labour, he occupies a role that will see him undoubtably clash with the province’s public service unions. Two unions have already launched court challenges against the province’s new anti-labour laws. This likely will not stop the rumours that Mr. Lukaszuk hopes to one day become his party’s next leader and the next Premier of Alberta.
Diana McQueen (Drayton Valley-Devon): After serving as Alberta’s Environment minister (also known as the junior Energy minister), Ms. McQueen should be well versed in the portfolio she was appointed to in December’s cabinet shuffle. Some political watchers are skeptical of her ability to handle the all-important energy file and face upcoming debates on climate change and oilsands pipelines. Can she handle the pressure?
Shayne Saskiw (Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills): Rising star in the Wildrose official opposition and a potential future leader if Danielle Smith does not lead her party to victory in 2016. The young lawyer from rural Alberta is articulate and partisan, which I anticipate will lead him to play an even more prominent role in the opposition over the next year.
Kerry Towle (Innisfail-Sylvan Lake): A tough and outspoken critic of the government, Ms. Towle has become a familiar face of the Wildrose official opposition. As human services critic, she will face-off against Mr. Bhullar in the next session of the Assembly, which could be an entertaining pairing to watch. A good spokesperson and only one of three women in her party’s 17 MLA caucus, she could play a key role in softening her party’s hard-edged conservative reputation.
Len Webber (Calgary-Foothills): The former cabinet minister was shuffled to the backbenches after Ms. Redford became leader of the PC Party. With half of his PC MLA colleagues now sitting in some type of cabinet seat, you have to wonder what Mr. Webber did to deserve his permanent banishment. The government praised his private members bill to create an agency to coordinate organ and tissue donations, but will that be enough to keep him in the PC fold? Rumour has it that he is eyeing a federal Conservative nomination for the 2015 election. Steve Young (Edmonton-Riverview): Wronged by the premier and cast to the backbenches before he could officially enter a cabinet position he had been promised, Mr. Young’s future role in the PC caucus could be interesting. As a member of the conservative wing of the PC Party, he could cause trouble for the PC establishment in the backbenches. Elected to represent a traditionally Liberal-voting constituency that has been hit hard by university budget cuts, he could be vulnerable in the next election, which is why I don’t expect him to sit quietly for the next two years.
Imagine a chilly and dark December evening in Alberta. It’s snowing and a cold wind is blowing. Standing at the steps of the Legislative Assembly building in Edmonton are more than 500 parka wearing Albertans, mostly public sector workers, listening to speeches decrying the government’s new anti-labour legislation. Labour leaders, New Democrats and Liberals have already spoken and voiced their strong opposition to the bills, next up at the microphone is a representative from… the Wildrose Party.
These two bills will allow the Redford Government to bypass a legally binding arbitration process in order to force a wage-freeze on 22,000 government employees represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees, increase harsh fines for illegal strikes and “strike threats,” and introduce restrictions on freedom of speech. Mr. Hancock had initially proposed pass much of this legislation in a short 48 hour period.
Mr. Hancock’s haste, with the blessing of Premier Alison Redford, led to three days of large protests outside the Alberta Legislature. This is not Ukraine or Wisconsin, so there were not tens of thousands of protesters clashing with riot police or occupying government buildings. But there were more than five hundred public servants who, politely and passionately, gathered outside the Legislative Assembly building each day to voice their opposition to this legislation. This is Alberta. And it is winter. It is cold.
In Mr. Hancock’s rush, a most unlikely alliance appears to be forming. On Friday, Wildrose Official Opposition MLA Joe Anglin, a former United States Marine who briefly led Alberta’s Green Party, stood on the steps of the Assembly building to show his support for the 700 public sector workers braving the cold to oppose the Redford Government’s anti-labour bills.
And yesterday, perhaps more symbolically, the Wildrose Opposition’s conservative Deputy Leader, Rob Anderson, stood on those same steps to show party’s support for the more than 500 Albertans braving a December snowstorm to oppose Bills 45 and 46.
Some people may believe this is a sign that the Wildrose is moving to the political centre, but they are no less of an ideological conservative party because of their opposition to these bills. The Wildrose’s opposition to Bills 45 and 46 is rooted in their libertarian beliefs and their entry into this debate is a testament to how unpopular and poorly written, and obviously unconstitutional, this legislation is.
As I wrote last week, according to Bill 45, any “person” who suggests that public sector employees strike or threaten to strike could be fined $500 and prosecuted within one year. The bill vaguely defines a “person” as someone who is not a government employee or trade union official, meaning that the $500 fine and prosecution could arguably apply to newspaper columnists, radio hosts, bloggers, or just ordinary Albertans who publicly suggest that unionized government employees participate in an illegal strike or consider taking illegal strike action.
While the opposition parties in the Assembly do not have sufficient numbers to stop these two pieces of legislation from becoming law, the Wildrose Party is playing a long-game.
The Wildrose Party is eager to make allies of the tens of thousands of public sector workers who played a key role in Ms. Redford’s leadership win in 2011 and election win in 2012, but now feel that the Premier has turned her back on them. Ms. Redford claimed to be a champion of progressive conservative values, leading many moderate conservative and liberal voters to lend their support to her Progressive Conservatives in last year’s election in order to block a victory by the Wildrose Party.
Since the election, Ms. Redford’s team has shown little gratitude to this important part of her winning coalition. Instead, they are imposing contracts and have arbitrarily implemented deep budget cuts on the colleges and universities that employ many of Alberta’s public sector workers.
By attacking a constitutionally protected right to free speech and by undermining Albertans’ right to a fair bargaining process, Ms. Redford’s Tories have, in the midst of a cold December on the prairies, managed to unite their political opponents on both the left and the right.
The Wildrose Caucus has released a flashy new YouTube video encouraging Progressive Conservative MLAs to join the Official Opposition.
The video begins with two former PC MLAs making the pitch to cross the floor. “I was nervous when I first did I, but I have to tell you, it is so much better over here,” Wildrose MLA Heather Forsyth says in the video. “It’s not you, it’s them,” Rob Anderson testifies.
The rest of the video includes short clips of testimonials and pleas from Wildrose MLAs to their PC MLA colleagues. “It’s not your fault, your party left you. Come on over,” a welcoming Ms. Smith says in the final clip.
It is yet to be seen if any PC MLAs will accept the opposition offer.
The first piece of legislation, Bill 46: Public Service Salary Restraint Act, introduced by Finance Minister Doug Horner, would impose a two-year wage-freeze on more than 22,000 government employees represented by the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees. AUPE is currently in negotiations with the government for a new collective agreement and this bill would allow the government to bypass a law requiring it to settle the negotiations with AUPE through arbitration, which had been scheduled for February 2014. Bill 46 would take effect on January 31, 2014 if the two parties cannot reach a settlement before that date.
This bill is reminiscent of threats made by Education Minister Jeff Johnson to the Alberta Teachers’ Association earlier this year. During those negotiations, Mr. Johnson threatened to cut salaries and impose a new contract on Alberta’s teachers if an agreement was not reached by an arbitrary deadline. Once a deal was finally reached between the government and the teachers’ union, Mr. Johnson then legislated the agreement after a number of elected school boards voted to reject the deal on financial grounds.
The introduction of this legislation raises a real question about the state of collective bargaining in Alberta. Can this government, as an employer, be trusted to bargain in good faith with its employees? And what incentive is there for employers bargain fairly with their employees if the government will just impose an agreement?
The second piece of legislation, Bill 45: Public Sector Services Continuation Act, introduced by Human Services Minister Dave Hancock, significantly increases the penalties for illegal strikes by workers who are determined to provide essential services. Mr. Hancock introduced this bill as a response to the wildcat strike by corrections officers that began at the Edmonton Remand Centre earlier this year. The government proposes to introduce harsh fines of up to $1,000,000 per day on a union in the case of an illegal strike or even the threat of a illegal strike.
As David Climenhaga wrote on his blog, the real reason the government is rushing these changes through the legislature is not the possibility of illegal strikes, but the compromise currently enshrined in the current labour relations system:
“While former premier Peter Lougheed deprived public employees of the right to strike in the event of an impasse in bargaining, in return they got access to a compulsory arbitration process. In other words, an arbitrator who looks at the facts, the laws and private-sector comparisons, and who then has the right to impose a settlement on both parties.”
With Ms. Redford turning on her supporters in the public service, Alberta’s public sector employees could find themselves with allies in untraditional places.
“A Wildrose government would never act in this way. Just because your negotiation isn’t going well, you don’t take away people’s arbitration rights that are in the contract that was signed. That’s not how you govern. That’s not good faith,” Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson told the Edmonton Sun.
For reasons that are unclear, Ms. Redford’s government is moving quickly to pass this legislation. At Mr. Hancock’s urging, MLAs have made an unordinary exception to meet for a special sitting on Friday, November 29 in order to ensure that Bill 45 passes through the Legislature in the next 48 hours and becomes law before the weekend.
Tomorrow is election day and in counties, municipal districts, villages, towns, and cities across the province, Albertans will cast their votes for mayors, reeves, councillors, aldermen, and school trustees.
In Calgary, uber-popular mayor Naheed Nenshi is expected to crush his opponents, including former Progressive Conservative MLA Jon Lord and a cast of challengers from the political fringe. This election also marks a change of title for Calgary city council members, from “Alderman” to “Councillor.”
With voters in Alberta’s second, third, and fourth largest cities – Edmonton, Red Deer, and Lethbridge – selecting new mayors, there could be a shift in how municipalities interact with the provincial government. With the ongoing war of words between Mayor Nenshi and Municipal Affairs Minister Doug Griffiths, a cast of new mayors could create a new dynamic in municipal-provincial relations in Alberta.
While there will be many new faces on municipal councils after the votes are counted, there could be some familiar characters returning to the fray. Observers of provincial politics in Alberta will recognize some of these candidates.
In Fort McMurray, former PC-turned-Wildrose MLA Guy Boutilier is running for a councillor position on Wood Buffalo’s municipal council, a place where he served as mayor before entering provincial politics in 1997. In Edmonton, former MLA Edmonton-Mill Woods Liberal MLA Weslyn Mather and former Edmonton-Beverly-Clareview MLA Ray Martin could be elected as trustees on Edmonton’s Public School Board.
In St. Albert, where anonymous smear groups run rampant, former Alberta Liberal Party leader Bob Russell is aiming for a political comeback. While he was never elected to the Assembly, Mr. Russell served as Liberal Party leader from 1971 to 1974. He later served as an alderman in St. Albert from 1989 to 1992 and 1995 to 2001.
In the Village of Wabamum, former Stony Plain Tory MLA Fred Lindsay is running as part of a 3-candidate slate. Running for re-election to Wabamum village council, but not on Mr. Lindsay’s slate, is Bill Purdy, who served as the PC MLA for Stony Plain from 1971 to 1986.
Familial relations also cross municipal-provincial lines. Judy Hehr, mother of Calgary-Buffalo Liberal MLA Kent Hehr is running for a spot on the Calgary Board of Education. Strathcona-Sherwood Park PC MLA Dave Quest‘s wife, Fiona Beland-Quest, is running to become a councillor in Strathcona County. Lethbridge mayoral candidate Bridget Mearns is the daughter of Lethbridge-East‘s Liberal-turned-PC MLA Bridget Pastoor. And in Edmonton, Ward 8 councillor Ben Henderson is running for re-election. Mr. Henderson is married to Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman.
In the City of Airdrie, Jane Anderson, the mother of Airdrie Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson is running for a spot on city council as part of the Airdrie United slate. Mr. Anderson’s brother, Nathan Anderson, is running for re-election as mayor of the town of Crossfield.
The appearance of municipal slates in Airdrie and Red Deer could signal the return of partisan style politics in municipal government (slates were common in Alberta’s larger cities until the 1970s and 1980s).
Outgoing mayor of Cochrane Truper McBridehas raised questions about the involvement of Wildrose MLA Rob Anderson in the ‘Team Airdrie United’ slate of candidates running in the October municipal elections. Mayor McBride alleged that Mr. Anderson’s involvement stems from his opposition to density requirements for new development bring implemented by the Calgary Regional Partnership. Mayor McBride is the chairperson of the CRP.
Mayor McBride contested the Progressive Conservative nomination in Banff-Cochrane before the 2012 election. The nomination was won by Canmore Mayor Ron Casey and is the only rural constituency in southern Alberta that elected a PC MLA in last year’s election.
Whether Mr. Anderson is involved or not, it appears there could be a deeper level of personality politics influencing this quarrel (one of the candidates in the Team Airdrie United slate is Jane Anderson, Mr. Anderson’s mother). But there is also an undeniable push by some conservatives to have a concerted influence in this year’s municipal elections by organizing slates of candidates.
While Conservatives of varying stripes dominate the federal and provincial levels of government in Alberta, voters have been friendlier to moderate centrist and centre-left inclined candidates in the municipal sphere. Many politicians identified with the Liberal and New Democratic Parties have had successful political careers at the municipal level in Alberta.
One conservative-slate, Red Deer First has emerged in central Alberta’s largest city. Sources tell this blogger that many of the key figures behind this group have ties to the Wildrose Party.
In April 2013, a video leaked to Global Calgary showing a large group of prominent wealthy developers – known to some as the Sprawl Cabal – plotting to stack Calgary City Council with sympathetic candidates made waves in Alberta’s largest city. The video showed a prominent developer presenting a plan to defeat certain members of City Council who he perceived to be anti-urban sprawl.