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Strange political bedfellows are conjuring more than entertainment in Alberta

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Mason-Smith Debate Poster

Alberta New Democratic Party Leader Brian Mason and Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith debated each other at the University of Alberta in Edmonton last night.

According to those who were there, their verbal jabs were highly entertaining. "Ms. Smith and Mr. Mason playfully sparred over issues facing the energy sector, pipelines, the economy, post-secondary education, health care and public services," wrote blogger Dave Cournoyer, who unlike the author of this blog didn't have an election campaign of his own as a priority.

But it would be mistake to conclude that the purpose of this cheerful joust was to highlight the differences between the two parties in the Alberta Legislature that are ideologically the farthest apart, the NDP on the left and the Wildrose Party on the right.

On the contrary, it was to advance the goal they have in common, that is, improving their relative positions in the Legislature -- not vis-a-vis one another, but with the two parties with which they have historically had their fiercest rivalries.

For the NDP, this is the Alberta Liberals, now led by former Conservative Dr. Raj Sherman. For the Opposition Wildrose Party this is the Progressive Conservatives, led by Premier Alison Redford.

This is a goal both parties seem to have quietly concluded can be achieved more easily and quickly with the help of the other.

Thus the emergence of the peculiar alliance of convenience -- known in the political world by the technical term "strange bedfellows" -- between Smith's Wildrosers and Mason's New Democrats, the most obvious manifestation of which is the series of seven "debates" the odd couple are performing on college, university and technical school campuses throughout the province.

While it can be safely assumed that neither party would really like to say this aloud to their most avid supporters, let alone their most determined opponents, it's pretty obvious the peculiar pair are using their self-evident differences as a platform to undermine the parties in the Legislature they are most alike.

Both parties hope to achieve something similar to the outcome of the last federal election, in which the federal Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper finally formed a majority government and the NDP under the late Jack Layton became the Opposition.

The backstory is self explanatory: In the 2012 provincial election, it looked for a spell as if the Wildrose Party would finally topple the PC dynasty founded in 1971 by Peter Lougheed and inherited the year before the vote by Redford.

Indeed, the Wildrose Party was confident it would supplant the government, which had been wrested from the PC party establishment's leadership candidate by Redford, who subsequently turned out to be an unseasoned and unskilled leader, after the resignatioon of former premier Ed Stelmach.

The NDP had high hopes it could replace -- or perhaps even eliminate -- the Liberals under the shaky leadership of Sherman as the third party in the Legislature, putting themselves in a position to vault into Opposition.

Instead, after a few nerve-rattling weeks for the Tories, Premier Redford and her political advisors managed to persuade nervous Albertans that rolling the dice for the Wildrose was taking too big a chance with a party just a little too far to the right for comfort.

To do this, they cast themselves in the unlikely role of supporters of public services, especially public health care. They were helped in their effort no small amount by "bozo eruptions" by a couple of novice Wildrose candidates.

As a result, the PCs returned to power with a slightly reduced, but still comfortable, majority. The Liberals -- despite predictions they faced a wipeout -- managed to salvage five seats, leaving the NDP still in the Legislative rear with only four.

But despite their disappointment in 2012, both the Wildrose Party and the NDP have concluded that conditions in fact remain much the same.

As disgraced but still influential Wildrose strategist Tom Flanagan explained not long after the last election, the Wildrose Party thinks it can win if it can persuade centre-left voters to return to their traditional political homes instead of supporting the Redford Conservatives out of fear.

So Wildrose strategists have concluded it is in their interests to boost the prospects of the NDP. (Also, they have tried to appear much more moderate, an effort much enhanced by Smith's not inconsiderable political skills.)

At the same time, NDP leaders seem to have concluded that if the planets align the right way, next time their party can make big gains over the Liberals -- or even eliminate them.

So the Wildrose Party and the NDP seem to have reached the conclusion that by working together they can achieve a variation on the last federal election, in which the federal Conservatives under Prime Minister Stephen Harper formed a majority government and the NDP under the late Jack Layton became the Opposition.

In other words, the Wildrose Party hopes to achieve nothing less than to supplant the PCs as the natural governing party of Alberta.

In this scenario, the party would not just become the government, but eventually to manage a "hostile reverse takeover" of the PCs as the Reform Party absorbed and eliminated the Progressive Conservatives at the federal level.

The Alberta NDP hopes to use the same scenario to squeeze the Liberals and become the natural Opposition party for Alberta’s many progressive voters, who last time spread their votes among the PCs, the Liberals, the Alberta Party and the NDP. From there, they dream, they could eventually form a government.

By working together symbiotically to weaken the other two parties, both hope to achieve these long-term goals. For, as Cournoyer noted in his blog, "while the Wildrose does not have a strong base of support in Edmonton, the NDP are well-positioned to steal votes away from the Tories in the provincial capital."

And every seat the PCs don't hold brings the Wildrose Party closer to power.

Surely this is the explanation for the unlikely co-operation between these strange political bedfellows.

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

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