Toronto Star

Conservati­ves in Alberta one big happy family again

- Gillian Steward Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of the Calgary Herald. Her column appears every other week.

Alberta politics has long had more to do with conservati­ves openly settling their difference­s than competing parties vying for power as happens in the rest of the country.

So when the right-wing Wildrose party — the official opposition — folded its tent and set up camp with the ruling Tories — its former declared enemy — it seemed part of the natural order of things in this province.

Yet most Albertans were truly shocked when a week before Christmas Danielle Smith, leader of the Wildrose party, crossed the floor to the government benches and took eight of her 14 MLAs with her.

Even people who rarely talk politics suddenly had strong opinions about Smith’s betrayal. And why wouldn’t they? The defections left all politician­s and politics looking like a sham. If the leader of the opposition can attack the government’s record one day and then the next day tell the premier he and his party are actually doing an excellent job, why believe any politician?

One of the most astonishin­g aspects of the switch is that over the past three years Wildrose had proven to be an extremely effective opposition: the strongest challenge the seemingly perpetual Tory government has faced in more than 20 years.

Wildrose MLAs honed in on government corruption, patronage and lax spending habits. The public outrage they fomented managed to topple two Tory premiers — Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford.

Anyone could see that for the first time in a long time, Tory politician­s were actually afraid of the opposition. The Tories knew they had to pull up their socks because if they didn’t there was a good chance Wildrose would be elected and their 43-year hold on government would end.

But then in September former MP Jim Prentice won the Tory leadership and everything changed.

Despite being a newcomer to provincial politics, Prentice won over a lot of Albertans as well as key corporate donors. And then his Tories managed to win four byelection­s.

The Wildrose began to crumple. Two of their MLAs crossed the floor shortly after the byelection­s. The rest of the caucus pounded away at the government during the fall sitting of the legislatur­e. But appar- ently that was all show because Wildrose lieutenant­s were already negotiatin­g with the Tories for seats on their side of the legislatur­e.

But the reach of the Tory party doesn’t end there. The newly designated leader of the Wildrose, Heather Forsyth, is a former Tory cabinet minister who crossed the floor in 2010.

The leader of the Liberal party, Raj Sherman, is a former Tory junior cabinet minister. He was kicked out of the Tory caucus after a very public dispute with premier Ed Stelmach about the state of health care in the province. Sherman is the second Liberal leader to come from the ranks of the Tory cabinet.

The Wildrose will continue as the official opposition even though both Wildrose and the Liberals have five seats each.

That leaves the NDP as the only party in the legislatur­e without direct connection­s to the Tories. They have four seats and are growing support in Edmonton. But only in Edmonton. They barely register anywhere else in the province.

If it were up to the Tories, one suspects they would prefer an NDP official opposition, especially if it were small because they can be trotted out as a useful example of what would become of Alberta if the “socialists” were to take over.

In fact, Prentice likes referring to all opposition (except Wildrose) as “socialists.”

“It’s not a democratic principle that conservati­ves should fight conservati­ves for the entertainm­ent of socialists,” Prentice told a columnist shortly after the Wildrose defections.

In other words, without the Tories Alberta would be taken over by a party that would dismantle the very economic system that has made it one of the wealthiest jurisdicti­ons in the world.

But the real threat is a powerful government — the Tories now hold 73 of 87 seats — that will sink back into entitlemen­t and complacenc­y because it can. Because the opposition is weak and fractured and poses no threat at all.

Unless, of course, the Tories start openly fighting among themselves again.

 ?? JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS ?? Most Albertans were truly shocked when former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor to join Jim Prentice and the Conservati­ves.
JASON FRANSON/THE CANADIAN PRESS Most Albertans were truly shocked when former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor to join Jim Prentice and the Conservati­ves.
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