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Alberta Tories swing right, paradoxically because of the implosion of their right-wing brethren

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Jim Prentice

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley, Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman and Alberta Party Leader Greg Clark were onto something yesterday when they all observed that the government of Premier Jim Prentice is now quickly swinging to the right.

There’s an element of truth to the suggestion Prentice and his Progressive Conservative caucus are doing it to chase the votes of the province's loony right, especially its loony social conservative right, which for the past few years has found a not-entirely happy home in the Wildrose Party under the leadership of the socially more flexible Danielle Smith.

Well, those days appear to be over as illustrated by Premier Prentice's studied waffling and intentional lack of leadership on Bill 202, Edmonton-Centre Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman's private member's bill that would force schools to allow gay-straight alliances in the event students perceive a need for them.

When Prentice says he'll allow a free vote by his MLAs on Bill 202, and when ex-Wildrose turncoat Ian Donovan risibly suggests that the his former party is now far to the left of the PCs, both statements are code for saying homophobia will be tolerated in the PC caucus to win so-con votes as long as it's reasonably discreet.

But that's not the whole story.

The underlying reason this shift to the right is suddenly possible, paradoxically enough, is that the apparent implosion of the right-wing Wildrose Party under Smith has made it easier for the right-wing PC Party under Prentice to dismiss the threat from large number of centre-left voters who live in Alberta, as poll after poll of citizens' general attitudes have shown for years.

Since in reality there is no practical or ideological difference between the Wildrose Party and the PC Party on economic issues, and very little on social ones, it was easy for moderate voters to the left and the right who wanted to punish the 43-year-old Tory dynasty for its deplorable recent performance under Alison Redford to contemplate voting Wildrose.

Indeed, this is the explanation for the recent cautious Wildrose drift toward a more moderate position on such issues as LGBTQ rights, much to the chagrin of MLAs like Donovan, who was obviously nervous about how the social-conservatives in his rural Southern Alberta riding would respond.

The possibility that moderate voters might go Wildrose also partly explains the initial Tory moves, after Prentice took up the reins of governing and before the Oct. 27 by-elections, to dump the worst legislative excesses of the Redford regime. He hoped to win back centrist voters who had saved Redford in 2012, as well as, reasonably enough, to repudiate the former premier's deplorable personal conduct.

But with Wildrose Party support apparently evaporating in the wake of last month's by-election disappointments -- both in caucus and among its general membership -- the Prentice PCs have been freed to revert to form and ignore the moderate instincts of so many Alberta voters.

This should surprise no one. It's been apparent to anyone who paid attention to what the candidates were actually saying during the Tory leadership campaign that on economic issues Prentice is just as determined a neoliberal market fundamentalist and oil industry apologist as former Fraser Institute apparatchik Smith. As for social issues, it now appears he doesn't give a fig about LGBTQ rights and will do whatever it takes to win yet another PC majority.

With all three parties generally labelled progressive in Alberta splitting one another's votes and polling in the teens, he's no longer under much pressure to pay attention to the "left."

However, the committed social conservative right -- which has its electoral act together, whatever we may think of its social views -- is another matter entirely. Prentice will pander to it as long as he needs to -- and how long that is entirely up to the rest of us.

In an interview with the CBC yesterday morning, Smith was sounding more like her confident old self, as if she had recovered some of the aplomb she seemed to lose immediately after the defections Monday of Little Bow MLA Donovan and her former close friend, Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA Kerry Towle.

But it will be a hard struggle for her to get her party back to where it was even a month ago.

And if we believe former Wildrose MLA and Green Party Leader Joe Anglin, who quit Smith's caucus earlier this month before she could fire him in an unrelated dispute, that two more Wildrose MLAs are about to decamp, well … the party's done like dinner, no matter how confident its leader appears.

The plain fact is, as hard as this may be for Alberta's progressive voters to digest, if they want progressive policies, they're going to have to vote for progressive parties.

And if the progressive parties can't get their act together and show some co-operation, progressive voters are going to have to pick one and get on with it themselves, or resign themselves to a full half century of Tory rule!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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