Seven members of Alberta opposition seek to join government ranks: sources

The Canadian Press
December 16, 2014 09:36 AM

EDMONTON – At least half of Alberta’s official Opposition is expected to seek to cross the floor to the governing Progressive Conservatives on Wednesday, sources have told The Canadian Press.

The sources, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said seven members of Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith’s party — including Smith herself — want to join the government of Premier Jim Prentice.

Prentice has said any decision must still be ratified by his caucus when it meets Wednesday morning.

If carried out, the move would gut the Wildrose party, created mainly by disaffected ex-Tories and viewed as the only serious electoral threat to the government in 2016.

It would give the PCs an overwhelming 70 seats in the 87-seat legislature.

Joining Smith would be house leader Rob Anderson, who quit the Tories in 2010 to join the Wildrose.

That would leave seven leaderless Wildrose members. The party would still be the official Opposition as the Liberals have five members and the NDP four alongside Independent Joe Anglin, a former Wildroser.

The defections would bring to nine the number of Wildrose members in the Tory fold.

Last month, Wildrosers Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan bolted to the PCs, saying they were disillusioned with the Wildrose and galvanized by Prentice’s leadership. Smith at the time said Towle and Donovan showed little integrity.

Earlier Tuesday, Wildrose executive member Jeff Callaway said party brass were angry after being blindsided by the anticipated floor-crossings.

“It’s profoundly disappointing for MLAs to undertake floor-crossing initiatives for the sake of their own political self-preservation,” said Callaway.

“But the fact is the party remains. We will have a caucus after this. Our fundraising is strong. We have a good constituency association roster. We will be in the next election and we will have a slate of candidates contesting it.”

Callaway said the party still has more than 21,000 members.

One of the Wildrose legislature members not present at Smith’s meeting Tuesday was Drew Barnes, who represents Cypress-Medicine Hat.

Barnes, who said he would not cross, said the Wildrose caucus needs to remain loyal to its base and has a responsibility to hold the government accountable.

He said many upset Wildrose party members were reaching out to him.

“I’ve had hundreds of members tweet me, text me, call me,” he said. “Many of them want to continue in a very, very strong way.”

Sources said the floor-crossing would be underpinned by a written agreement that promises the Wildrose defectors will be able to run as PCs in their ridings in the next election, slated for the spring of 2016.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley said that suggests the Wildrosers are less concerned with ideology and more concerned with keeping their seats.

“On both sides, it is primarily about a bunch of folks that want to keep their jobs, whether you’re talking about Tories or Wildrosers,” said Notley.

“That document does not read like a guide to grassroots democracy. That reads like a guide to clinging to power.”

The loss of Smith could be crippling to the party. The erudite business leader and former journalist was the catalyst who, over the last five years, delivered energy and mainstream credibility to an upstart right-centre party that gained followers when the Tories fumbled on issues such as land rights and fiscal conservatism.

As official Opposition since the 2012 election, Smith and her caucus mates used dogged research and Rottweiler-intense attacks in question period to expose weaknesses and scandals that helped topple two Tory premiers.

Polls, in fact, had the Wildrose leading the 2012 campaign up to the final week when anti-gay and racist remarks attributed to two candidates, along with Smith’s hedging on whether climate change existed, raised doubts on whether the party had the maturity to lead.

The party’s highwater mark came this past spring as the Tories dropped in the polls following the spending scandals that forced then-premier Alison Redford to resign.

But under Prentice, a fellow fiscal conservative, the Wildrose have gone into a tailspin that hit a peak when the Tories trounced the Wildrose in four byelections on Oct. 27.

In the days that followed, the brittle confidence of Smith and her team appeared shattered. Their poll numbers fell and Smith appeared off her game.

She asked for an immediate leadership review, only to be told the party constitution didn’t allow it.

When Anglin quit the caucus ahead of being turfed, Smith accused him of secretly taping caucus meetings. She did not have proof.

In a speech to party faithful at their annual convention last month, she blamed the mainstream media for fostering the narrative that Wildrose is negative and narrow. She said the path to power lay in blogs and engaging the grassroots through social events organized by Wildrose “fun police.”

At the same convention, Smith was out of the room when party members refused to ratify into policy a statement on inclusiveness it had passed a year earlier.

That resurrected criticism the party remained intolerant toward homosexuals and was not ready to govern.