Alberta PCs courting Wildrose defectors to capitalize on rift between social …

Analysis

The body is still breathing, but the smell of death can be detected on the Wildrose Party. Two MLAs — including one of the opposition party’s most high-profile figures — crossed the floor to the long-ruling Progressive Conservative party on Monday.

It is a crushing blow for Alberta’s upstart opposition after several weeks of internal discontent and political missteps, leaving political watchers wondering whether the party can survive.

Despite the efforts of its leadership, the party seems bent on crippling itself on the same gay rights issues that dashed its hopes of forming government in 2012.

We are a party of free votes but our membership was deciding how I, as an MLA was expected to vote, and that caused me great conflict

Kerry Towle, a key caucus lieutenant, left on the same day as Ian Donovan, the party’s agriculture critic, and only two weeks after MLA Joe Anglin decided to become an independent. Mr. Anglin cited a “civil war” within the party, noting widespread discontent with the leadership and staff.

However, the deepest rift is between the social and fiscal conservatives, who have bartered an uneasy peace since the party formed in 2008 in a bid to oust the PCs.

Ms. Towle was one of Wildrose’s most reliable and progressive MLAs; she was long an example of the centrist wing of the party, which tended to eschew the more strident social conservatives.

“We are a party of free votes but our membership was deciding how I, as an MLA was expected to vote, and that caused me great conflict. I think the continued fraction on the direction of our leadership — I was in line with that direction, and they were not — and that was becoming harder and harder for me to deal with,” said an ashen Kerry Towle, standing next to Premier Jim Prentice.

The party’s downward spiral began at the end of October when it failed to gain a seat in four byelections; even before the votes had been counted, rumours began to swirl about Danielle Smith’s leadership.

Ms. Smith headed off that talk by promising a leadership review at the party’s annual general meeting in November, a plan that was subsequently scrapped when caucus moved to quash the vote.

At the general meeting, a Wildrose MLA pushed the party to adopt an all-encompassing member’s statement to grant equality rights regardless of sexual orientation. The party membership rejected the statement.

The vote re-ignited questions about Wildrose’s commitment to LGBTQ rights among its socially conservative faction.

Last week, Calgary riding vice-president Terry Lo quit, saying the party is run by a bigoted minority that is against gays and ethnics.

In his resignation letter, Mr. Lo wrote: “It’s a very powerful minority that is shaping the culture of the party, unfortunately, that is not only LGBT-unfriendly but also ethnic-unfriendly as well.”

As for Ms. Towle, she insisted she reached out to the PC party only last week. However, she cited recent events for provoking her decision.

“What has changed is where we’ve been in the last five weeks and the direction that we were heading down,” Ms. Towle said.

“I think Kerry Towle encountered one frustration after another with the Wildrose Party. She was feeling more and more disconnected from the leader, more disconnected from the grassroots,” said pollster Janet Brown in an interview Monday. “Gay rights probably wasn’t the crux of it, but it was another proof point that they needed to disconnect.”

Wildrose is undergoing a painful transition, from protest party to potential government, similar to the path paved by the federal Conservative party when it evolved from the merger of the Reform and Canadian Alliance parties.

But if Wildrose is struggling with this transition, the PCs are willing to capitalize on the moment.

Several sources who did not want to be named said the governing party has spent the past three to five weeks reaching out to Wildrose defectors, essentially lifting the flaps of the big-tent PC party and trying to usher the discontented back inside.

The calls have been made not only to Wildrose MLAs, but also to board members, candidates and long-time political operatives.

“All is forgiven,” one such figure was told when he received his call three weeks ago, just after the Wildrose byelection losses.

A unite-the-right movement may warp Alberta’s body politic yet again; there are already rumours of more floor-crossings to come. If Wildrose is to survive, the bleeding needs to stop.

The PCs now have 63 members in the 87-seat legislature. There are now 14 Wildrose members, five Liberals, four NDP and one independent.

National Post, with files from The Canadian Press

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