It’s December 17th. So today is the second anniversary of the epic Alberta floor crossing, the day Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith was in theory supposed to lead her entire Opposition party caucus across the floor of the House join Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservative government.
It was a pivotal moment in the train of events that led to the election of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government on May 5, 2015.
It was an audacious plan, hatched in deep secrecy in the weeks before by party leaders and some of their closest advisors. It was orchestrated, so it is now said, by Preston Manning himself, son of Social Credit premier Ernest Manning, former leader of the Reform Party in the House of Commons and, through his eponymous Manning Centre in Calgary, the godfather of the Canadian Right.
Had it worked, it likely would have worked spectacularly. If the entire Opposition caucus had crossed to the governing PCs (metaphorically speaking, as they weren’t actually in the House at the pivotal moment), Prentice could have called his election whenever he wished and it’s almost certain he would have won. If even one more Wildrose member had crossed, it would have made a significant difference.
Wildrose supporters might not have liked it, but what could they have done other than sit out the election? PC supporters offended by the merger would have found themselves in much the same predicament. The NDP or the Liberals might have picked up a few seats, but so what?
In the event, Smith led nine of her MLAs to the government caucus. Two more had crossed a few days before, and one had quit to sit as an Independent. But that left five MLAs still in the House affiliated with the Wildrose Opposition.
Even so, at the time, many people, including your blogger, thought Prentice had pulled off a historic political masterstroke. Had the gambit succeeded, it would have gone down in history that way — breathtakingly cynical but heroically bold.
Instead, it turned out to be an epic failure. Somewhere between the planning and the execution, enough Wildrose MLAs got cold feet, or whatever happened, to let the party, tied with the five-member Liberal caucus, keep its toehold in the House.
The Speaker ruled that the Wildrose would remain the Opposition, with its cash and privileges, because it already had the job.
The history-making desertion to the government benches by most of the Opposition party announced at the Dec. 17 news conference at Edmonton’s Government House shocked and appalled most politically alert Albertans.
Defection Day 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.
It didn’t seem to please many rank and file Conservative MLAs in the merged caucus either — seeing as they and the Wildrosers had 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, however, the promise was never kept. It is also said that a few PC MLAs vowed never to serve in caucus with the former Wildrosers.
Even so, it still likely would have worked if Prentice had ignored his Ontario-based advisors and waited a year to consolidate his gains. As more than one Wildrose-turned-Tory MLA later said, if they’d only had a year to rebuild in their constituencies, they could have had a fighting chance.
In the event, every one of them was swept away on election night, and many PCs too. Notley’s New Democrats formed a majority government. When the dust had settled, the completely re-staffed Wildrose Party remained the Official Opposition.
None of this would have happened, of course, without the political talent of Notley, 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 Dec. 17th, and former Conservative MP Brian Jean, who won the Opposition party’s leadership in March and breathed new life into the party at a moment it appeared to be on life support.
Sadly, we will never know Prentice’s final take on these events. He died in a tragic air crash in the B.C. Interior on October 13th of this year.
Smith was a remarkably talented politician too, who brought the Wildrose Party to the brink of forming a government … and then led it over the cliff.
Today she is the engaging and popular host of a talk radio program on Calgary’s CHQR.
By chance, she had me on her show yesterday — talking about the ambitious Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt’s break with Jean, and the unexpected departure of Notley’s chief of staff, Brian Topp — and I teased her about the anniversary.
“The Great Betrayal,” Ms. Smith replied sardonically, with a bitter chuckle.
So it was seen, and history was made. Certainly, with the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, it was a serious mistake.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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