Behind the uproar in Alberta

Colby Cosh on the ad-hoc, crazy-quilt nature of an inevitable revolt in Alberta


Alberta Premier Jim Prentice (Darryl Dyck/CP)

The scenario: Roughly half of the official Opposition, including its leader, quits its party and crosses the floor to join a government that already has an overwhelming majority in the assembly. It appears that’s what’s going to happen in Alberta on Wednesday, and it is difficult to find any precedent for it—outside the Third World, one hesitates to add. Major opposition figures will often dart back and forth across the two-sword divide in parliamentary democracies that suffer (or are designed for) numerical instability. Alberta, which has never come close to minority government in 109 years of history, is the opposite of this.

A couple of weeks ago, the strongest opposition in the history of the province’s assembly shamed the government into suspending a bill on anti-bullying measures in schools. Together, the minority parties split the governing caucus, introducing cracks that have not yet finished spreading, and demonstrated that its appreciation of public sentiment was probably much better than the government’s. (What in the ever-loving Lake of Fire is the Prentice government going to do about Bill 10, whose supporters outside the Assembly are now rallying after being shamed into silence during the actual debate? I don’t think they have any idea.)

The Wildrose members played a leading role in this victory. Somehow it became a cue for their caucus to self-destruct.

It’s a fascinating, surprising thing—but not entirely a mystery. Ever since Jim Prentice parachuted into Alberta politics to save the governing Progressive Conservatives, the Wildrose Party has been suffering an acknowledged identity crisis. It was initially created by Old Reformers seeking to replace the tiny hobby parties that were constantly winking in and out of existence on the right of the PCs during the 1990s. When Danielle Smith took over, bringing some Conservative Party of Canada organizing talent with her, these evangelical populists were joined by great numbers of libertarian types aghast at the loss of the government’s fiscal discipline, its increasing propensity for bribing public-sector unions, and the improvisational nature of its policymaking. Ed Stelmach alienated the oil patch with his resource-royalty adjustments; Alison Redford alienated everybody.

But the ad-hoc, crazy-quilt nature of this revolt was always apparent. It’s apparent in the meaningless name of the party itself: It was apparent in the tragedy of the 2012 election, wherein the PCs successfully turned the Wildrose’s Old Reformer streak against its gay-friendly, pro-choice leader. Smith realized after the defeat that she needed to turn the Wildrose into something that had an actual identity: Pinocchio had to become a real boy. A few months ago, she made an appeal to Wildrose members to, essentially, love one another, concentrate on winning, and stop bickering so much at board meetings. It makes quite a political epitaph:

I am asking you to start being kinder to each other and make Wildrose events a fun place to be. Enjoy each other. Do things together. Have a monthly beer-and-wings night. Hold a Christmas social. Do a Christmas cookie exchange. Hold a potluck. Sing Christmas carols door to door. Make your Wildrose board members your friends and plan to do your board business around doing something fun before or after your monthly board meetings. Appoint one of your board members to be the official Fun Police. It is their job to ensure that Wildrosers want to come out and want to bring their friends out, too. TELL YOUR CHILI STORY.

The chili stories are destined to go untold. People who were in the party long before Smith never cottoned to the CPC operatives who, up to the climax of the drama, kept the Wildrose ahead of the Progressive Conservatives in fundraising. They didn’t like Tom Flanagan’s civil-libertarian ruminations on child pornography, and they probably weren’t super pumped about Smith’s remarkable intervention on behalf of gay-straight alliances in the Bill 10 debate. Imagine you are Danielle Smith, and the Progressive Conservatives are imploring you to cross the floor, exercise power and authority, and implement your own agenda. Meanwhile, your own party doesn’t seem too certain you’re the kind of member they want, much less the leader. How long would you hold out?

Danielle Smith

Keep in mind, too, that Smith represents a flood-struck constituency where recovery, whether through the deliberate ill grace of the government or not, has been slower than elsewhere. Mere weeks ago, the Prentice government tripled the number of staff devoted to hearing disaster-recovery-program appeals, of which more than 300 of the 2,000-plus still outstanding were filed in the town of High River. A review of the RCMP’s temporary seizure of firearms from High River homes during the flood is nearing completion.

Smith’s bond with the people of High River began as an electoral convenience, but has become more sincere in the aftermath of shared calamity. The relief and recovery efforts have been a major unexpected distraction from party matters. It is one thing for her to stand by her principles, even if it means High River voters are last in line for flood-remediation service, dollars, and answers to questions. But, given there are no principles actually separating her and the premier, what would she have left to stand on?

The Eastern media is making a lot of jokes about the Wildrose Party and the Conservatives “merging.” That’s a decision the Wildrose caucus cannot make for its party, which will limp along for now, keeping as much of the big war chest as it can hang onto and, presumably, choosing a more authentic Old Reformer-type leader. The Wildrose turncoats have been promised a smooth path to PC re-nominations, but it will be awkward for them to campaign, and loyalists in deep-south Alberta ridings, where the presiding spirit is that of the ranch and not the homestead, will probably have an easier time surviving in the assembly than most of the floor-crossers.

For now, it looks as though the Wildrose rump will hang onto enough members to remain as the official Opposition in the assembly. But the big immediate winner is obviously the New Democratic Party—not just for the next Alberta election, whenever that comes, but perhaps even for the fall federal election. Prentice and the PCs have extinguished an immediate threat and absorbed some fierce critics. In exchange, they have angered the temporary Conservative voters who, in 2012, got stampeded into believing the Wildrose Party was some kind of atavistic gay-baiting menace. Prentice has, with Bill 10, blown some of the social-liberal credibility he earned for supporting same-sex marriage as a CPC minister. Progressive youth in Edmonton and Calgary, presumably, won’t get fooled again, although one must not underestimate their capacity for it.

Even though it is not a formal merger, and won’t become one, the PCs’ lassoing of the strongest Wildrose MLAs will satisfy “Blue Committee” Conservatives who have been working for a PC-Wildrose union since 2011. Rob Anderson and Shayne Saskiw, said to have been the envoys who engineered the Great Wildrose Stampede, were probably the two most ambitious and visible members of the Wildrose caucus aside from Smith herself. (UPDATE, 2:30 pm: My error. It appears Saskiw is one of the loyalists.) It was not much noticed at the time, but Anderson made his own personal effort to square the PC-Wildrose circle during the debate on Bill 10, pursuing a slightly different course from Smith and struggling to create a version of the law that the entire assembly could live with. In retrospect, this appears to have been a big hint at activity behind the scenes.

The floor-crossing has some people, mostly those who would never actually vote Wildrose, fretting about the general health of democracy in Alberta. For better or worse, co-opting talented people is what the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta does. Albertans do not have a national mindset the way Quebeckers and Newfoundlanders do, but they are conscious of being part of a single common project, one they or their parents have often come here specifically to join. In the professions and the managerial classes, among economists and lawyers and pedagogues and demagogues, ambitious Albertans who are anti-Conservative tribally or dispositionally are always ready to set aside personal allegiances to work for the Governing Party when called.

The more radical reversal we are witnessing today in the ranks of the normally irrelevant Alberta legislature is just a more extreme version of that perpetual co-opting process, motivated partly by the mood of dread created by falling oil prices. Prentice’s invitation to the Wildrose caucus—or, rather, the memorandum that was composed in his name for that purpose—makes explicit reference to “coming together as conservatives” in the face of plummeting oil. Prentice has also allegedly promised Wildrose traitors free votes on private members’ bills and “conscience” issues, and that will make the theatre of the Alberta assembly more intriguing, even as the nose count returns somewhat to its typical homogeneity. Small victories will be easier for the Liberals and the New Democrats to come by. Or, put another way, it will be easier for them to be content with small victories.

PC dominance of political life and institutions in Alberta maps onto the pervasive economic influence of oil and gas: They are one phenomenon expressed in two different ways. That link was threatened by Stelmach, who lost the oil patch by making a royalty grab, and by Redford, whose damaged, irascible character threatened the legitimacy of the party’s hegemony. Jim Prentice’s motto as a returning prodigal was “Alberta—under new management.” The actual message is “Alberta—back to business as usual.” And yet, after this, things may never be quite the same.


Behind the uproar in Alberta

  1. Libertarians: stuck choosing between angry, toxic, intolerant social conservatives and entitled, arrogant, big spending progressive conservatives. Regular libertarians can choose the “a plague on both your houses” route but a libertarian politician must choose one of the houses if they hope to carry influence. It’s not surprising that Smith chose the PC side. It’s easier to nudge PC types toward libertarian financial issues than social conservatives toward acceptance of diversity. This is simply because voters value pocketbook issue more than “moral” traditions. Besides, as Cosh noted above, the social conservatives’ “I hate everyone different than me” attitude eventually winnows itself down to frumps and grumps by alienating modern, tolerant voters and members.

  2. Lordy lordy….and Albertans have the nerve to fuss about Ontario!

    • Don’t worry Emily. Ontario’s equalization payment will still be deposited by Alberta on the first of the month for your gravely indebted province . Use it wisely.

      • I forgot you haven’t been here in a while, so you’re behind the times.

        We’ll wait while you catch up

  3. Perhaps you left it out for sake of brevity, but a big piece of what’s unfolding right now was the by-elections shutout. I’m sure that result was the final nail in the WRA coffin, as the planets couldn’t have been better aligned for them (not much dissipation of Redfordian anger among the electorate, the Prentice honeymoon period waning, WRA candidates, particularly in Calgary, that were among the strongest they’d ever attracted) and they didn’t come really close in any of them. I submit it was in the hours and days following the by-elections that Smith and the WRA leadership came to the conclusion there was no hope of being anything other than the conservative version of the provincial NDs. It is not surprising this prospect didn’t appeal to them.

    As for the GSA/Bill 10 brouhaha, Prentice’ handling of things may alienate him among the “progressive youth of Edmonton and Calgary”, but, given the propensity of such folk to actually get out and vote, I suspect this won’t make much difference next election.

    • This mean you’re officially dropping your argument that Prentice needs success on a pipeline to ensure continuing majority?

      • It has been dropped, although I suspect we’ll now never know, as the fact Obama appears to owe Harper bodes well for Keystone.

        • What does Obama ‘owe’ us for?

        • Well, I dunno. Chretien gave Clinton some cuban cigars, and look where that got him.

          • Got him Monica!

  4. Colby could well be correct.

    Rachel Notley and the New Democrats could well be the winner in this unseemly, unprincipled, undemocratic Smith-Prentice affair.

    Rachel has earned a reputation of being a principled, positive and progressive voice – a sharp contrast to the two opportunistic coalition leaders.

    The Alberta Liberals will have two MLA’s who will be resigning soon to run federally, and the Alberta party is on life-support.

    Meanwhile the New Democrats is attracting good candidates, and building organizations – both provincially and federally – in readiness for elections that could be held as early as the Spring of 2015.

    • Ms. Notley’s father was a thoughtful, hard working and well regarded MLA. So is Ms. Notley. The NDs will continue to have 2 -5 MLAs into perpetuity despite this.

  5. Mr Cosh, you say there is no precedent to this yet I feel it is strikingly similar to the Reform-CA-UA-PC alliances that led to the Harper Conservatives. The Reform party (like Wildrose) could not overcome a perception of racism, homophobia, and sexism. Reform was destined to remain at best in opposition and a protest alternative. Moderating its stance and changing its name through Alliance, Conservative Alliance, and United Alliance did little and at one point 11 MPs defected from Alliance (just like what happened with Wildrose). It was finally the merger between the mainstream PC party and Harper’s Alliance party which finally broadened the base enough to give credibility to the Conservative party. And it was a change of leadership in the parties-that made this deal possible just as it was a change to the leadership of Prentice in Alberta that made Smith et al crossing possible
    And it is also interesting to note that the Alliance/PC Fed merger was announced on Oct 15, 2003 yet it was not until early December of 03 that membership in both parties ratified the merger. I expect we will see a party vote for Wildrose membership in the future and they will likely support the merger because this is the only way this party’s ideals have a chance of being carried forward.

  6. After working for Stockwell Day, serving the cause of Southern Alberta ranchers’ property rights, promoting parental choice and fiscal accountability on the Calgary Public School Board, and leading Wildrose, Danielle Smith has returned to her roots in the old, tired, federal Red Tories dating back to when she was a U of C campus Tory. Back then, Danielle didn’t really seem all that interested in what the old Red Tory federal party stood for. She just wanted to be one of “the cool kids.” She didn’t join the Reformers on campus, and it was only when it was clear that she couldn’t go anywhere in politics in Alberta apart from the Reform Party and its successor, the Canadian Alliance, that she abandoned the tired, old federal PC party.

    Now, Danielle has gone back to “the cool kids” in the person of the tired, old, Alberta Red Tories led by one of the last hold-outs of the tired, old, federal PC Red Tories, Jim Prentice.

    What she and Jim Prentice and so many others don’t seem to remember or to “get” are a few key facts:
    1. The Canadian Alliance brand had been severely damaged by the record of a former Alberta PC cabinet minister, Stockwell Day;
    2. Both the Canadian Alliance and the tired, old, federal Red Tories were in opposition. Financially, the Alliance was in good shape financially and its 200,000 members, but it’s eletoral prospects were doubtful. The federal PC party was, tiny, insolvent and incapable of raising money and in danger of disappearing;
    3. After exhausting the other alternatives, Stephen Harper, a former Reform Party MP, reached out to the federal PC leader, Peter MacKay, from a position of strength;
    4. Stephen Harper called for a vote of the Canadian Alliance membership on merger;
    5. Stephen Harper insisted that “Progressive” not appear in the name of the new party;
    6. Once merger was approved, Stephen Harper called for a leadership convention of the new party, the Conservative Party of Canada;
    7. The Conservative Party of Canada’s landmark first and second electoral wins in 2006 an 2008 were engineered by staff and volunteers NOT from the remaining rump of the old federal PC Red Tories, but by people with roots in the Reform Party and from the Canadian Alliance. Most of these were not wishy-washy, incoherent, “I’m a fiscal conservative but a social liberal” types, but full-on conservatives in respect of public spending, taxes, family, and monarchy. It was these same people who pushed HARD for outreach to new Canadians who shared the same values.

    Albertans deserve better than what they are getting with a deal cooked up by a failed Leader of the Wildrose and a wannabe leader of the federal Conservative Party of Canada.

    Albertans deserve a political opposition led by a party that will stand up for Alberta’s values of family, a day’s pay for an honest day’s work, fiscal responsibility and lower taxes, protecting the law–abiding from the criminal element, property rights for landowners and responsible firearms users, and parental responsibility and choice on their children’s education.

    • This is why you’re DOA.

      • Good luck with that. And all the best with Premier Wynne and the Liberals’ asking Ontario hydro users to pay $50B more than the electricity cost, and turning Ontario’s public finances into more of a basket case than even California’s.

        • Doesn’t take luck.

          Everybody in the world wants family, a day’s pay, protection from criminals etc. There is nothing ‘Albertan’ about those values. They are a given in any society.

          What we are talking about is economics…..and here Alberta’s economy is different from Ontario’s. Alberta is a ‘primary resource’ economy…..things from the land….oil, wheat, cattle and so on.

          Ontario is a service economy moving into a knowledge economy….it’s a very different kettle of fish, and can’t be run the same way Alberta is.

          Alberta is farmland, Ontario is urban. Toronto alone is bigger than your entire province.

          Albertans worry about debt, Ontarians concern themselves with GDP. Different focus.

          And NONE of this has anything to do with social conservatism….Ont is multi-culti….all colors, all cultural practices. all religions….we are not white male christian farmers. Albertans are always fussing about olde tyme religion.

          I can’t believe Albertans would spend two minutes worrying about our electricity. LOL

          • Ontario is gravely in debt. And Ontario, unable to do 21st century manufacturing to any significant degree, is moving more into a service economy then a knowledge economy.

            Lastly, if the millions of urban rednecks who constitute the Ford brother supporters are your version of ‘multiculti’, well, lol Emily, you can have ALL that ‘multiculti’ to yourself. I’ve never seen city folk as foolish and unrefined as the type that populate large swaths of the GTA.

          • “A service economy moving to a knowledge economy.” You sound like that gasbag Richard Florida and his “creative class” gobbledygook. try saying something of substance once in a while. I doubt you are fooling anyone here. Most of us can see through chronic bull$hitters easily enough. Buzzwords like “knowledge economy” are a dead giveaway. Next you’ll be telling us about clusters, global value chains and synergies. IF only an economy could be powered by the mental flatulence of wannabe gurus – we wouldn’t have a debt problem.

        • Ontario has been in far worse debt than this Chris….and we have a healthy GDP so we’re not worried about it.

          75% of the country is in a service economy. It is the initial stage of a knowledge economy.

          Ontario has been doing 21st century manufacturing for some time. You really have to keep up

          The Fords aren’t multi-culti….they’re Ralph Kleins. Which is why Tory is now mayor. We don’t want ‘red-neck’ here.

          • Oh you’ve got red necks Emily. The whole world now knows that. Millions and millions of urban rednecks. Obese, vulgar and living in large urban centres, they are far more crass than anything similar we have in Alberta.

            And no, Ontario has fallen far behind on manufacturing. No large scale chip fabrication. No major Airbus or Boeing composite manufacturing. No premier automotive manufacturers like BMW or Mercedes. No new Ford engine factory, chased away by Unifor to Mexico instead. And little of the innovative smaller scale specialty manufacturing that the US is excelling at.

            The 21st century arrived nearly 15 years ago and Ontario is still waiting for the good times of the 1990’s to return.

            The Fords are boors, which is why they are so popular in Toronto. Ralph remains a genius. Too bad you’ve never had the good fortune to have someone of his character and intelligence govern your province.

    • If this is what Albertans want and “deserve”, don’t you think we would have elected more Wildrose MLA’s. I’m tired of people like you thinking you have the right to speak for people like me.