Politicians are like actors. Eventually, many of them will stand before us and say things they either don’t believe or honestly can’t defend but will try to anyway.
This week, Albertans were treated to one of the greatest political acting jobs they’ll ever see. It occurred when former Wildrose party leader Danielle Smith stood beside her new boss, Premier Jim Prentice, and said with a completely straight face that she was deserting her party and her leadership of it on principle.
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It was one of the saddest and most galling moments in the political history of this country. In 30 minutes, Ms. Smith managed to confirm people’s worst suspicions about politicians. It’s decisions and performances like hers that have helped foster the deep cynicism and mistrust that people have about our political system. It’s why many don’t vote.
It’s rotten for another reason too. There are, in fact, many people in politics who are there for the right reasons: shaping public policy and changing the lives of constituents for the better; acting as agents of sober second thought; fighting for policies they believe in; working as part of a fierce opposition that holds a government to account. Those are all noble endeavours.
This week, Ms. Smith and her eight floor-crossers undermined every one of those people and the work they do.
Of the many things Ms. Smith admitted to during her time with reporters Wednesday, I found it difficult to say which was the most egregious. One candidate was her concession that back-channel talks about a possible merger of the two parties had been going on for months. Imagine that. As she was carrying out her job as leader of the Official Opposition, there were secret discussions under way, sanctioned by her, designed to completely neuter her party.
That takes some acting.
This is particularly infuriating when you consider the harsh words Ms. Smith had when two of her MLAs defected from the Wildrose ranks last month to join the government. Ms. Smith was most upset about the departure of Kerry Towle, whom Ms. Smith considered a close friend. There would be no more friendship, she said – not with a traitor who sold out the party in such a brazen manner.
Whatever will Ms. Smith say to Ms. Towle when they bump into each other at the first Tory caucus meeting? (On that front, what will Tory backbenchers say to Rob Anderson, who left the PCs to join Wildrose and now has sheepishly returned, giving a whole new meaning to the term “double-crosser”?)
The other moment I loved was when someone asked Ms. Smith what she would say to all those people who had donated money to Wildrose, who had volunteered hundreds of hours of their time, who served for free on a party executive she didn’t have the decency to inform about the great merger plan that was in the works. Her answer: “We won.”
Let’s be clear about who won. Jim Prentice and the governing Progressive Conservatives did, because they were able to exploit a weak and vulnerable Opposition leader who was prepared to abandon her principles for potential personal gain. And make no mistake – Ms. Smith may not be given a cabinet post this week, or before the New Year, but it will happen. And with it will come a wonderful salary and office and staff and the power and privilege that comes with being in government.
So you might say, then, that Danielle Smith won too. On one level, I suppose – but that has to be measured against what she had to give up for those future personal gains, and that was plenty. She forfeited the respect many people had for her and what she stood for. She lost the admiration of thousands who toiled in her service because they believed in what she was promoting, believed she was a woman of high moral conviction who would fight to the bitter end.
Those people didn’t win; they all lost. And so did the Alberta public, which once again exists in a one-party state, without the kind of strong, bold, unified opposition that’s essential to most functioning democracies.
And anyone who would make that happen in the name of political opportunism is one bad actor.