Wildrose Caucus

One of the more irritating byproducts of mass defection by the Mudville Nine and two of their caucus colleagues who rejoined the Tory Mothership a few days earlier has been the outright wholesaling of the nonsensical claim the Wildrose Party was the most effective opposition Alberta has ever known.

Jen Gerson and Jesse Kline said this in the National Post. Global News broadcast it. Canada’s National Website, the Globe and Mail, chipped it into a stone tablet and brought it down from the mountain at 444 Front Street. Even the CBC peddled this nonsense.

There are many more examples, of course. Quite naturally, the Wildrose Party’s supporters — and many others too — have picked up the refrain and repeated it far and wide.

Well, it’s baloney. At least some of the professional political commentators know it’s baloney, too. Indeed, it has become a Big Lie, classically defined, which has now been repeated often enough to take on the quality of truthiness in the minds of many ordinary Albertans.

In reality, the Wildrose Party was not a particularly effective opposition.

The reason for this is quite simple — as former leader Danielle Smith has in effect admitted — they didn’t really oppose anything of substance that the Progressive Conservative government did, regardless of whom the premier was at any particular moment.

The Wildrose opposition focused on alleged waste, entitlement and obvious scandals — easy targets that didn’t make them much different from the Canadian Taxpayers Federation and other professional agitators in the burgeoning Canadian right-wing outrage industry.

But on matters of legislative substance, they offered little — and often just meekly agreed and voted with the government.

Indeed, the Wildrose Opposition was quite dishonest about government spending — cheerfully jumping on any protest bandwagon organized by other players unhappy with cuts or underfunding, even going so far as to turn up at union-organized protests to say the Right Things, but at the same time advocating a tougher fiscal line than either the pre-Jim Prentice or Prentice PCs, at least when it came to revenue and borrowing.

Not only did they fail as official Opposition to offer meaningful policy differences to the PCs, they provided little debate — often only one lame speech in which they agreed with most of the government’s positions and accepted its legislative provisions.

If they offered amendments, as in the case of Bill 10, the Prentice Government’s controversial response to the private member’s bill that would have forced schools to accept gay-straight alliances, those amendments tended to reinforce the government’s position.

This was very poor performance compared to both the Alberta Liberals as official Opposition and the New Democratic Party caucus, which has been smaller than the Liberals in recent Legislative sessions.

Liberal MLAs like physician David Swann and Laurie Blakeman, author of the original gay-straight alliance private member’s bill, actually debated government bills, and where possible slowed them down. Former MLA Hugh Macdonald, probably the best choice as Liberal leader in 2011 when former Tory Raj Sherman got the job, was a fine debater and a brilliant researcher who effectively held the government’s feet to the fire countless times.

It goes without saying that the NDP caucus convincingly held the government to account — even in years when that caucus was made up of only former leader Brian Mason and current Leader Rachel Notley — more than the Wildrose Party ever did. Both Mason and Notley have reputations as effective Parliamentarians because, unlike most of Wildrose MLAs, they are effective Parliamentarians.

It was the NDP’s efforts above those of all other parties that in 2005 and 2006 stopped the “Third Way” — Ralph Klein’s attempt to privatize health care in Alberta.

It was the NDP that later in that decade effectively opposed the Child Advocate reporting to the minister not the Legislature, as well as premier Ed Stelmach’s surrender on charging fair energy royalties for the people who actually own the resources. More recently, it was New Democrat MLAs who pushed better regulation of auto insurers into the books. Likewise, right to the present, the NDP has kept up the pressure the PCs’ continuing and disgraceful failure on seniors’ care.

All the Wildrose caucus really had going for it that was different was its numbers — something that can hardly be said of them any more, notwithstanding Speaker Gene Zwozdesky’s decision yesterday allowing them remain the official Opposition for the moment, not that it will make much difference.

As an aside, in Zwozdesky’s defence, given the party’s remaining numbers in the Legislature, the votes accumulated by each party in past elections, and Parliamentary tradition, his ruling yesterday is hard to fault. Anyway, the situation is bound to change again soon enough — although MLA Shayne Saskiw insisted via Tweet yesterday morning that, despite the popular wisdom, it won’t be him who makes the move. I will take him at his word.

As a Wildrose House Leader who had a background in a governing party with overwhelming numbers in the Legislature, Rob Anderson never really “got” the Parliamentary role of the official Opposition.

Opposition MLAs complain that as chair of the Public Accounts Committee — the only committee chaired by a member of the Opposition, and which is supposed to favour the opposition — he ensured the large government caucus got the same amount of time for each member, instead of the previous arrangement in which opposition and government questions alternated.

Kudos to right-wing Sun media columnist Lorne Gunter, for whom I usually have little time, for admitting, albeit rather deep in his column Monday, that “former NDP Leader Grant Notley (father of current NDP leader Rachel Notley), who was a caucus of one, was more effective by himself than most official oppositions we have had.” And, yes, that includes the recent Wildrose opposition.

The NDP? A great opposition, serving Albertans well.

The Alberta Liberals of the past? Ditto — although maybe not so much today with two or three of their best MLAs on the way out and the caucus under Sherman essentially reduced to a group of independents who share office space.

But the Wildrose Party as the most effective opposition Alberta’s ever had?

Please! Give us a break! It’s hogwash, pure and simple.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...