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Explaining the revulsion: It's not the policy differences, stupid! It's the Wildrose corruption critique

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Danielle Smith & Jim Prentice

Why are Albertans so angry about the defection of 11 Wildrose opposition members to the government's benches? I mean, why are they really so furious?

This has been a bit of a mystery. No one, and that includes the Progressive Conservatives and Wildrosers who cooked up the floor crossing, relatively neutral non-conservative observers, and members of the public who find themselves so incensed, seems to fully understand why the reaction has been so visceral and passionate.

But there it is. It's pretty obvious that the shock and revulsion felt by ordinary Albertan citizens went way beyond what any of the schemers who came up with this brainstorm imagined.

Yet it is also true, as both former Opposition leader Danielle Smith and Premier Jim Prentice and their supporters have argued vociferously since the Big Shock on Dec. 17, that on most issues the positions of the two parties were in fact close to identical.

Indeed, most of the people who are so unhappy about the apparent betrayal by the 11 Wildrosers also understand this.

Now, both Prentice and Smith, a little disingenuously, have tried to suggest this state of concord between them was something new, a situation that developed only after Prentice put his Progressive Conservative Party under "new management."

In reality, though, it has certainly been true since Alison Redford was sworn in as premier and her approach to governing became obvious. But it was also clear during Ed Stelmach's tenure as premier that on all but one or two issues, the principal one being whether there should be modest increases on hydrocarbon royalties or none at all, there was little of substance to divide Wildrosers and Tories.

As for Ralph Klein's premiership, that was supposedly the Golden Age of market perfection and perfected austerity to which Wildrosers harkened back as their inspiration for Alberta’s planned future restoration.

So, really, what’s so infuriating about two political parties that for all intents and purposes took the same position on all matters of policy and ideology admitting the obvious and joining into a single entity?

The reason -- and it's surprising there's been so little commentary that comes right out and says this -- is that Albertans accepted the basic premise of the Wildrose Party's critique of the PC government, which is that it was entitled, arrogant and, under Redford's leadership, openly corrupt.

The Wildrose Party went from being just another loony right-wing fringe party to a serious contender only when elements of the petroleum industry decided Stelmach had to go because of his attempt to increase royalties. No one, even a dyed-in-the-wool lefty, could credibly argue Stelmach was corrupt, or even that he himself acted as if he were entitled, although the latter case could be made about some of his ministers.

It’s said here -- and I recognize this is impossible to prove or disprove -- that if Stelmach had stuck around in 2011, he would have defeated Smith and the Wildrose Party with ease and won a larger majority than Redford held onto in the 2012 general election. What's more, Alberta would probably have been better off for it.

But Alison Redford really was the perfect foil for a conservative insurgency that argued the government in fact had it right on core policy and ideology, but couldn't deliver on either because it was dirty.

After she settled in to power, Redford seemed to do everything she could to provide evidence to prove the key Wildrose complaint was right, and therefore Alberta needed structural change that could only be provided by a new party in power.

True, most Wildrosers were former Tories, but as Smith herself said in response to the defection of MLAs Ian Donovan and Kerry Towle in late November, when Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth first crossed the floor to join Wildrose, they went "from government to opposition because of principle. They gave up the perks of power to serve Albertans, not for personal gain because they wanted to put Albertans first." I think most Albertans, even those uncomfortable with what the Wildrose Party might do, accepted that as true. (Anderson subsequently crossed back; Forsyth did not and is now Opposition leader.)

It's also true there were other political parties in opposition that at least in theory could run an effective government if they had sufficient numbers of MLAs. But the fact is the Wildrose Party was the most likely to be able to do so. It had the support of many conservative Albertans who could never bring themselves to vote for a non-conservative party and had worked hard to moderate its positions on the most offensive social conservative doctrines -- notwithstanding a troll or two in its back benches, now in the Tory back benches.

Even when Prentice arrived on the scene and public opinion polls suggested Albertans were willing to give him a chance, deep skepticism remained about the PC government because Albertans had in significant numbers accepted the Wildrose arguments about Tory entitlement and corruption.

Other parties had said these things too, of course, but the fact a conservative party was saying them, for many voters, lent credibility.

At the very least, a large number of uncommitted voters wanted to hold Prentice's feet to the fire and make him prove his party, and by extension the province, really was under new management and that the new managers could be trusted.

The deeply cynical manoeuvre of Dec. 17 ensures they will never have the chance to do that.

It is ironic that it also ensures Prentice will never truly be able to prove that his government offers a clean slate, a meaningful change.

By accepting the 11 Wildrose defectors, including Smith, into the PC caucus, Prentice has for many voters reinforced the Wildrose Party's principal premise the PC Party is corrupt.

The only difference is that, now, conservative-leaning voters have also concluded there is nothing they can ever do about it. Their apparent return to the Tory big tent is a gesture of defeat, not faith.

This is the source of the revulsion and lasting bitterness felt by so many Albertans, a circle that extends well beyond the Wildrose Party’s committed supporters.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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