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December 17, 2014: Defection Day, an Alberta anniversary to remember (and to forget)

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Danielle Smith & Jim Prentice

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One year ago today was Defection Day in Alberta.

One year ago this afternoon, Danielle Smith, then leader of the Wildrose Opposition, made it official that she would be leading most of her party's MLAs across the floor of the legislature to join then-premier Jim Prentice's ruling Progressive Conservative Government.

Although the mass defection of nine MLAs including Smith had been expected for a few days by those who followed Alberta politics, the history-making desertion to the government benches by more than half of the Wildrose caucus announced at an afternoon news conference at Edmonton's Government House was nevertheless a development that was both shocking and appalling to most sentient Albertans.

But at the time -- and I will admit I was fooled -- it also appeared to be a political masterstroke by Prentice, who was then seen as the saviour of the PC party following the rocky years after Alison Redford replaced Ed Stelmach as premier.

The defections, it appeared to most commentators that day, would be the end of the Wildrose Party and the beginning of the renewal of the four-decade-old PC dynasty as the natural governing party of Alberta.

The mass defection -- which we now know was brokered by Preston Manning and had been plotted for several weeks in deepest secrecy -- left a legacy of anger, bitterness and betrayal in its wake. Many citizens, particularly among the Wildrose Party's most enthusiastic social conservative supporters and donors, were deeply disillusioned, even with the whole idea of democracy.

It didn't seem to please many rank and file MLAs in the merged caucus either -- seeing as they'd been at each other’s throats for months. This was especially true because it was rumoured the defectors had been promised coveted cabinet positions. If that was so, the promise was never kept. It is also said that a few PC MLAs vowed never to serve in caucus with the turncoats.

Almost no one seems to have predicted on this day last year what the effect the breathtaking cynicism and self-interest embodied in Prentice's and Smith's agreement would have on the Alberta electorate.

Even those of us who believe most NDP voters fundamentally supported the platform outlined by Premier Rachel Notley in the campaign leading up to last spring's general election are forced to concede that the disillusionment sown that day, compounded by the astonishing arrogance and foolishness of Prentice's year-early election call, contributed to the NDP's stunning majority victory on May 5.

Likewise, no one seems to have thought at the time that every one of the Wildrose floor crossers, including two others who crossed three weeks before Smith and company, would one way or another have been swept out of public life in less than six months.

Of course, other key players in this drama were Notley herself, who almost single-handedly made the NDP seem like a credible alternative for thousands of voters who would not have considered voting that way before December 17, and former Conservative MP Brian Jean, who won the Opposition party's leadership and breathed new life into the Wildrose Party when it appeared to be at death's door.

So no matter how you come at it, this is an important anniversary in Alberta history, even if it is one that conservative Albertans, especially supporters of the PC Party, would be just as happy to forget.

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

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