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Wildrose Party endures its cruelest day as two MLAs quit to join PC government

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Kerry Towle

There was the cruelest sort of irony in the battering suffered yesterday by Alberta's Wildrose Opposition, which lost two MLAs to the apparently rejuvenated Progressive Conservative Party of Premier Jim Prentice.

Kerry Towle, MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake and last week the party's seniors and human services critic, and Ian Donovan, MLA for Little Bow and the party's agriculture and rural development critic, waltzed into a news conference with Prentice in Edmonton in the afternoon and announced they would be crossing the floor to join the government.

They left Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith sounding uncharacteristically bitter, and her party with the taste of ashes in its mouth. Donovan's departure was not unexpected, but the loss of Towle, who has turned out to be one of the most effective MLAs in the Legislature, must have left the party reeling on the ropes.

A third Wildrose MLA, former Green Party leader Joe Anglin, quit earlier this month hours before Smith was about to fire him after he'd fought a long battle with party members in his own Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre riding. He maintained there was a "civil war" in the caucus, and he now has the right to say "I told you so!"

The irony of today's drama stems from the fact that, back in January 2010, the Wildrose got its start as an Alberta political phenomenon when two Tory MLAs fed up with the performance of then premier Ed Stelmach crossed the floor to join the party's lone MLA, Paul Hinman.

When Guy Boutilier, an independent MLA who had been canned by Stelmach, joined Rob Anderson, Heather Forsyth and Hinman in June 2010, the Wildrosers had the numbers needed to become an official party in the Legislature.

Smith, elected leader in 2009, led the party from outside the House until the 2012 election, when the party became the official Opposition.

From 2010, until the party failed to beat Prentice's PCs in even one of four by-elections on Oct. 27, the media narrative never changed, even if the facts never quite fit. To wit: the plucky little "upstart" party, "soaring" in the polls, was a cinch to form the government in one of those cataclysmic shifts that many folks take on faith to be the hallmark of Alberta politics.

During the short, unhappy reign of the execrable Alison Redford, it was easy to believe that storyline. But as Harold Wilson, Labour prime minister of Britain through much of the 1960s, famously observed: "A week is a long time in politics."

I expect the events of the weeks leading up to yesterday's bombshell have put an end to the plucky-little-upstart narrative. With 14 seats in the Legislature and who knows how many more MLAs gazing longingly the at the government benches, the Wildrosers are not the party they were even a few days ago.

Still, it's too soon to count them out. After all, even with the redoubtable Prentice at the helm, the Tories will have been in power for almost 45 years when the next election most likely rolls around, and they richly deserve a spell in opposition. The people of Alberta know it too -- they just need the right excuse.

That said, Smith's immediate response was not the wisest, and it will compound the not inconsiderable problems she faces this morning.

She made a brief statement yesterday afternoon, no media questions permitted, in which she bitterly compared the actions of Towle and Donovan with those of Forsyth and Anderson. "I have always believed politics should be about principle. Today I was proud to be in the Legislature with Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth at my side. Rob and Heather crossed the floor from government to opposition, because of principle. They gave up the perks of power to serve Albertans, not for personal gain, but because they wanted to put Albertans first. Today we saw the opposite…"

Well, let it be said that former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was probably right when he observed, "You should dance with the one that brung ya." Just the same, roughly 160 Canadian Parliamentarians have crossed the floors of Canada's legislatures since Confederation, and the sound of a party that got its start with a couple of floor crossers complaining about a couple of floor crossers prompted guffaws in political circles. The general sentiment: What's good for the goose is good for the gander.

What should the remaining 14 members of the Wildrose caucus do now, not to mention the party's fractious membership?

Stay the course, of course, and stand by their leader. After all, as the Tories have shown, a good brand can outlast even a terrible leader, and Smith in fact has been a pretty good one for her party.

But that will be hard for a Canadian conservative party, steeped in a long tradition of dispatching its own wounded on the battlefield.

Still, if the Wildrosers can keep their heads while all about are losing theirs, perhaps they can claw their way back from the brutal fall of 2014.

And, who knows, if they manage, perhaps a day will come when Towle and Donovan regret yesterday's dramatic change of allegiance.

With that thought, let's give the last word to Winston Churchill, another British prime minister, who crossed the floor of the House of Commons twice, once in either direction: "Anyone can rat. It takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat."

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

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