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Collapse of rickety Wildrose coalition could be a bad-news/good-news story for Alberta NDP

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Rachel Notley

Monday's bombshell that the rickety coalition of ideological market-perfection fanatics and social-conservative religious fundamentalists called the Wildrose Party was coming unstuck may turn out to be a bad-news/good-news story for Alberta's New Democrats.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith's big problem -- other than the fact she appeared to have been completely out of the loop last week about the upcoming defections of MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan -- is that her party's rank and file is made up of significant numbers of refugees from the disaffected fringes of the vast centre-right coalition that is the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta.

Newly elected New Democratic Party Leader Rachel Notley's potential big problem is that without vote splitting on the right between Wildrose conservatives and Progressive Conservatives in the Edmonton area, where all three parties have been polling at similar levels, the NDP's dream of picking up many more seats than the four it has now could evaporate.

Not so long ago, NDP strategists were talking as if they could win a dozen or more seats in the next general election. If the Wildrose Party crumbles, so could the dream that might have seen the NDP form the Opposition in the Legislature based on a stronghold in Edmonton.

On the other hand, with the Alberta Liberals no longer much more than a collection of independents who share office space and the Alberta Party barely on the radar outside a few ridings, the NDP is probably the best placed to pick up votes from disaffected Tories if the Wildrose really does collapse. And even if the NDP sees its dream of a 12-seat caucus die, six seats may be enough to form the Opposition!

What a bitter day it would be, though, if the New Democrats significantly increased their province-wide vote in the next general election but saw their seat tally in the Legislature fall!

So it's not necessarily only the loony right that is praying Smith can somehow keep her Wildrose caucus on life support. It will be interesting to see some public opinion polls taken after the brutal events of the past 31 days, in which the Wildrose Party managed to lose all four Oct. 27 by-elections plus three of its caucus members with the possibility of more to go.

Regardless, it won't be easy for Smith to fix the gaping tear in the fabric of the Wildrose Party.

Her trouble is that from the start the party was the home to significant cohorts of extreme neoliberal economic fundamentalists who worship the Almighty Market and extreme religious social conservatives who worship a particular interpretation of Almighty God. Alas, they never really had that much in common with one another.

Both had lived unhappily on the disaffected fringes of Alberta's big-tent Tory coalition because their views were too extreme for most Albertans who, despite thinking of themselves as "conservative," believe in a modest degree of state intervention in the economy and take a live-and-let-live approach to issues like LGTBQ and reproductive rights that send so-cons into conniptions.

The Wildrose Party, apparently even more conservative than the Conservatives, attracted members of both groups.

But the Wildrose Party really got off the ground in the late 2000s with some big donations from junior oil company movers and shakers who were in a swivet about former premier Ed Stelmach's sensible if faint-hearted attempt to raise royalties on non-renewable resources. Now that fight is over and the oil companies have won.

If the oilpatch doesn't need the Wildrose Party anymore because PC Premier Jim Prentice is going to give it everything it wants, can the Wildrose's remaining supporters write enough cheques to keep the party afloat?

So, after all this excitement, it may have turned out that the only thing holding the so-cons and the market nuts together in the Wildrose Party could be summed up in two words: Alison Redford.

Redford's leadership was so incompetent, her own conduct so appalling, and her policies so alienating that the public concluded the Wildrose could be a reasonable still-conservative alternative. The PCs may richly deserve to be punished for their many sins, but with Prentice at the helm, the need does not look nearly as urgent to a lot of Albertans.

Without the glue provided by Redford to hold them together, it's hard to see how the Wildrose Party can soldier on without one faction or the other pulling the plug on what's left of the shaky enterprise.

Notley's task now is to get enough Albertans who are fed up with PCs' past sins and not yet ready for what may turn into an increasingly extreme Wildrose to rally round the NDP strongly enough to preserve and perhaps even increase its Edmonton stronghold.

This is possible. Historically, Tory and NDP voters have found it surprisingly easy to move back and forth between those seemingly quite different parties in Western Canada. But it will certainly not be easy -- as long as Prentice can maintain the discipline of his growing caucus. That, of course, is no sure thing either, which should keep things interesting.

Smith's job is to pull her party's fat from the fryer before, at the risk of mixing metaphors, more petals fall from the rose.

+ + +

Defining 'neoliberal': market fundamentalist, but anti-democratic

I am regularly taken to task by a couple of regular commenters for using the term "neoliberal" to describe, erm, neoliberals.

For the record, here is what I mean when I use that term: ideological market fundamentalism combined with belief in strong state power to enforce market mechanisms, even at the expense of democracy.

In Harperism, How Stephen Harper and his Think Tank Colleagues have Transformed Canada, author Donald Gutstein writes: "The ideology the think tanks promote is properly called neoliberalism because, in contrast to libertarians who want a small, powerless state that leaves people alone, neoliberals require a strong state that uses its power to create and enforce markets, and prop them up when they fail, as happened after the 2007-08 financial meltdown. Their utopian dream is a state governed by market transactions and not democratic practices. It’s based on the principle that economic freedom must come before political freedom. Political freedom may not even be necessary. It's fair to say they believe in government, but not in democracy."

This definition for market-perfectionist but anti-democratic neoliberalism may properly be applied to many groups in our society, including Harper's federal Conservative Party, the market fanatic wing of the Wildrose Party, myriad organizations like the Fraser Institute and Preston Manning's mislabelled Manning Centre for Building Democracy.

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

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