Alberta MLA defections were negotiated over a month, Prentice says

As talks progressed over the past month about a mass defection from the opposition Wildrose to the governing Progressive Conservatives, leader Danielle Smith publicly castigated two MLAs for being seduced by “the perks of power” when they crossed the floor of the Alberta Legislature.

A month later, Ms. Smith and eight members of her caucus followed the two in a move unprecedented in modern Canadian political history.

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In a year-end interview with The Globe and Mail, Ms. Smith said she felt she was losing control of her party. “Every time I made strides in the right direction, something was there to pull us back. The more I asserted myself and who I was, the more it alienated me from a faction of the base. It was untenable.”

The revelation was one of many from Ms. Smith on Thursday as she looked back on the Official Opposition she led as recently as Wednesday. She warned that what remains of the Wildrose risked becoming the “NDP of the right” in Alberta.

In a separate year-ender with The Globe, Premier Jim Prentice celebrated his 94th day in office, acknowledging the month-long discussions with Wildrose, and saying that 2015 would be a “critical year” for Alberta as he pledged to change the province’s environmental reputation abroad.

Mr. Prentice now is in one of the strongest positions an Alberta leader has enjoyed in decades. In the interview, Mr. Prentice said his seat count now equals that of former heavyweights Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein.

The turnaround comes after what he called a “very disappointing” two years of rule under former premier Alison Redford.

In fewer than 100 days in office, the Premier has achieved more than his rivals had expected possible. He won four by-elections and brought in a new accountability act to correct some of the excesses that brought about Ms. Redford’s downfall.

He has also had missteps, tabling a bill that would give Catholic school boards the final say on banning gay peer-support clubs – known as GSAs – on school grounds. That bill was pulled after massive public outcry.

However, Mr. Prentice’s greatest success, so far, has come from recruiting his main critic across the aisle and redrawing the province’s electoral map, ending the most effective opposition the PCs had ever faced.

In further explaining why she abandoned the party that she led for five years, Ms. Smith said that she had begun to be an “odd fit” and had put on a “brave face” as she lost control of her party’s membership. She said her push to move the party into the political mainstream had backfired.

According to Ms. Smith, the first major crack appeared on Nov. 15 when she says she was “devastated” as the Wildrose membership rejected an anti-discrimination policy at the party’s general meeting.

“I found out afterward that a group of members went to the convention specifically to vote that down. They wanted to teach me a lesson for walking in the gay pride parade,” said Ms. Smith, speaking from her constituency office south of Calgary.

“You need to put a brave face on it when you’re leader, but I thought it was a catastrophic error,” she said.

After that failed meeting, the first contacts began between a member of her caucus and Michael Percy, Mr. Prentice’s chief of staff. Over the month that followed, an increasing number of people from both parties began to talk. Discussions culminated on Dec. 10, when Mr. Prentice first met with Ms. Smith.

As talks progressed between both sides, two opposition members left the Wildrose for the Tories. In the wake of the defection of Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan, Ms. Smith criticized the two. She promised that there would be no more defections from the opposition.

A week after she first met Mr. Prentice, she walked across the floor with eight of her party’s 14 remaining MLAs. In her letter of resignation, Ms. Smith asked the party’s executive to put a “reunification proposal” to the membership, whereby the party would fold.

On Wednesday evening, the Wildrose executive voted unanimously to reject her request, vowing to remain in opposition and to elect a new leader.

For Mr. Prentice, his caucus now holds 72 of the legislatures 87 seats. He has vowed to tackle the $6.2-billion hole left in the province’s finances by the falling price of oil. Mr. Prentice said a cabinet committee was done “wrestling expenditures to the ground” and was now turning to increasing revenue.

One revenue source that is currently being reviewed is Alberta’s $15-per-tonne carbon levy. Mr. Prentice said the review of the levy would not be finished by the end of 2014 as previously announced and called for patience.

“It’s coming along, there’s been a lot of work done on it, but I’m not satisfied with it yet,” he said.

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