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Danielle Smith's conduct and the mass Wildrose defection must be seen as character issues

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Danielle Smith & Jim Prentice

It's a character issue.

Certainly the recent conduct of the leadership of the Wildrose Party, which this afternoon culminated with the desertion of most of its key elected officials to Premier Jim Prentice's ruling Progressive Conservative caucus leaving their loyalists and supporters in the lurch, has to be considered as an issue of character.

The ability of Parliamentarians to cross the floor is essential to the operation of our Canadian system of Responsible Government, and so not every floor-crosser ought to be be described as behaving badly.

But when more than half a caucus, elected and supported by voters who put their faith in the idea their party offered something different and better, decamps and joins their former enemy, it is hard to summon up excuses, or indeed anything but contempt, on their behalf.

In addition, when you consider key events in the career of former Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith, it’s also difficult to conclude that issues of character have not been in play before.

Indeed, at a number of key moments in her career, Smith has left a trail of devastation in her wake that, at the very least, suggests a lack of empathy for co-workers, rivals and now her own supporters.

Her abandonment of her own Wildrose Party because the road ahead seemed to be a hard one -- and possibly also to get a post in Prentice's cabinet -- suggests what we might euphemistically call a "lack of moral fibre."

Moreover, while we should generally give the benefit of the doubt and assume a lone floor-crosser acted out of genuine principle, that is harder to do when a legislator has crossed twice in opposite directions, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson did yesterday.

That is why, of course, Sir Winston Churchill's observation about his own floor crossing strikes most of us as hilarious: "Anyone can rat,"he famously said. "It takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."

When Smith and Anderson changed parties in the company of seven other members of the Wildrose caucus whom they had obviously persuaded to come along, it failed to pass the ethical sniff test, notwithstanding the doctrinal similarity of the two parties. That's because "there is no difference" is most definitely what Wildrose supporters and donors were being told as the plotting proceeded apace in secrecy.

When I first met Smith, she had just joined the Calgary Herald. This was at a time labour relations there were in a downward spiral and an ugly strike was looming. The newspaper's proprietor in Central Canada brought in a publisher with a reputation as a union buster during this time, and Smith was one of several employees hired not long before the strike began on Nov. 8, 1999. I was the vice-president of the journalists' union, so, yes, I have an interest in this ancient history.

Whatever her motivations for coming on staff, Smith crossed picket lines and worked throughout the strike.

Now, I will admit that I do not agree with Jack London's prescription for strikebreakers. There are many reasons some of my colleagues crossed their co-workers' picket lines, some of them even saw themselves as acting on principle. More were frightened, suffering from loss of income, under pressure from family members or a host of similar reasons. One, nearing retirement, had been told by someone in a senior job he would lose his pension. Only a few acted out of hard-nosed self-interest.

To me, though, for someone to come in from outside to play that role in a long-standing labour dispute, no matter how misguided the unionized employees may have been and even though it is completely legal to cross picket lines in the province of Alberta, does not speak well of a person’s character. I'll respect your right to disagree.

Smith had come to the attention of the Herald's management partly as a result of her activities as an elected trustee on the Calgary Public Board of Education. She was also known, I am sure, as a former Fraser Institute apparatchik with the right ideological credentials and temperament for the new owners of the Herald and other papers in the then-Southam newspaper chain.

This was a period after the 1998 civic election when the CBOE became so dysfunctional that the minister of education used his legal power to dismiss the trustees and put an administrator in change until the next scheduled election.

Smith alone can hardly be blamed for this situation. The board’s notorious troubles seemed to have arisen after the 1998 civic vote from an ideological rift between trustees committed to public education as traditionally funded and supported and a couple of right-wing trustees more sympathetic to market fundamentalist nostrums -- one of whom was Smith.

Whatever it was, Smith's role in drawing private notes that had been exchanged by trustees with whom she disagreed to the attention of the public, even if only by responding to media requests for comments, is troubling.

In 2009, Daveberta.ca author Dave Cournoyer published a revealing look back at this situation. Click on the links to read each edition: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

It seemed ironic in light of this history when Smith accused MLA Joe Anglin a few weeks ago of secretly recording proceedings of the Wildrose caucus, an accusation for which she has never provided evidence.

And now there is the still-unfinished business of the demise of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, which came to a climax yesterday when Smith, Anderson and seven other Wildrose MLAs struck a deal with Prentice’s PCs and were allowed to join the government caucus.

If this was a legitimate matter of high principle, why was it carried out in secrecy?

As Smith yesterday tacitly admitted, the plotting was hidden for weeks from the Wildrose Party's financial backers, mostly small donors who believed in the party's purported principles and probably could have found something else on which to spend their limited funds. It was also a secret from voters generally, many of whom until hours ago were still seriously considering casting their ballots for the Wildrose Party.

Notwithstanding his PC party's history of entitlement and arrogance, one can at least see sound political reasons for the conduct of Premier Prentice and his closest advisors. It is much harder to perceive the actions of the Wildrose floor-crossers as anything but self-interested, despite the protagonists’ mutual efforts at yesterday's news conference to characterize Smith's efforts as honourable and courageous.

Certainly Smith has left -- as she must have known she would -- bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal in her wake. I am sure there are longstanding friendships that will be severed forever as a result of her conduct, as well as many citizens who will be permanently disillusioned about our democracy.

Mind you, I suppose, from the point of view of the Prentice PCs and their opposite numbers in the Harper Government whence the premier sprang, this state of affairs is entirely satisfactory. After all, when unsupportive voters grow cynical about the meaning of their vote and contribution, they stay home, and vote suppression is a key part all North American conservative parties' key election strategies.

So when we consider Smith, we are inevitably reminded of the aphorism of Ian Fleming, author of the original James Bond novels: "Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action."

This is not, of course, the way Smith's change of parties was being presented at yesterday's joint news conference. Premier Prentice praised her "considerable personal courage." For her own part, Smith insisted, "these are the values I fought for through different jobs I've had the past 20 years."

Just the same, given her history, Prentice would be wise to ensure she is closely supervised, and not to push aside too many loyal Tories aside to make way for Wildrose newcomers in cabinet, lest this adventure, too, should end in tears.

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

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