If the Wildrose defection destroys Alberta’s opposition, Prentice has cemented …

ANALYSIS

After only four months at the helm of the Progressive Conservatives, Jim Prentice may have neutered the only effective opposition party Alberta has seen in 43 years.

Danielle Smith among Wildrose members seeking to defect: sources

Sources say seven members of the Opposition Wildrose, including leader Danielle Smith, will seek to cross the floor to the governing Progressive Conservatives.

The party sources, who spoke with The Canadian Press on the condition of anonymity, say house leader Rob Anderson is also on the list of those looking for a spot on the government benches.

Neither Smith nor Anderson have commented publicly since word of the possible defections surfaced on Monday.

The number of floor crossers could rise as some of the remaining Wildrose members consider their options.

Members of the Wildrose party executive say the party will continue operating whether the members of the legislature stay or not.

Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press

No confirmation came on Tuesday, but multiple sources predicted as many as half of the 14 remaining Wildrose Party MLAs could defect to the long-ruling PCs on Wednesday, including leader Danielle Smith and noted lieutenant Rob Anderson.

Even if no one crosses the floor, Ms. Smith’s ability to continue to lead the upstart opposition is in grave doubt as reports abound that the PCs have offered terms for a merger.

Such a move, if adopted, would be unprecedented in Canadian history: political analysts could find no corollary, that of a sitting opposition effectively conceding to a governing party. As Alberta PCs have been in power longer than any other sitting government ever, no historical anecdote easily compares to it.

If the mass defection succeeds in destroying Wildrose, Premier Prentice will have neutralized the only viable alternative party to emerge in Alberta since 1993, cemented his position as a generational premier who can be assured of years in power and solidified Alberta’s reputation as a one-party province.

Reports of the merger began to circulate on Monday night, when the Calgary Sun published details of a unification proposal between the two parties. According to those who have seen the document, the PCs have effectively conceded every point that has fuelled the protest party’s rise since 2008. From property rights, to deficits, the Progressive Conservatives have promised Wildrose positions will prevail.

However, a formal merger would have to gain the approval of the party membership, not just the MLAs. And most of the executive committee — which would have to convene a special meeting of the members — remain opposed, says Jeff Callaway, a former  Wildrose Party president and current vice-president of fundraising.

“Every single member of the executive committee — and I’ve talked to the majority of them — are opposed to this, absolutely,” he said. “They view this as a betrayal, and a personal selling out of all of the members, donors, volunteers, everyone who contributed to this party. And they’re selling out the voters.”

Wildrose MLAs were expected to vote on the proposal Tuesday. Mr. Prentice told the Sun that the PC caucus would discuss the outcome of that vote on Wednesday.

“There is no indication to me that this is a merger in the sense that we have become accustomed to,” said Wildrose Party president David Yager. “I’ve got no indication that that is what is happening, and as president of the party, if it were a merger in the classic sense then I should have heard about it.”

The executive committee was slated to hold an emergency meeting late on Tuesday night.

Meanwhile, Mr. Callaway said Ms. Smith can no longer be trusted to lead the party, regardless of what happens on Wednesday.

“It would be fair to say her leadership of the party is over,” he said, crediting her position to “exhaustion” brought on by months of internal party turmoil, poor recent byelection showings and three floor crossings.

If Wildrose Party members feel betrayed, they aren’t alone.

Remember that the PCs renewed their flagging mandate in 2012 by whipping fear about the possibility of a far-right, socially conservative Wildrose victory: they have now not only adopted every policy tack suggested by the opposition, but the PCs, under Mr. Prentice, are playing burlesque with the same socially conservative base that they used to turn voters against Wildrose.

Keith Brownsey, a political science professor at Mount Royal University, said he fears for the province’s public institutions in the face of what will likely be a devastating budget built on low oil prices.

This is really short-term gain for Wildrose, which is likely bargaining for cabinet seats

Oil selling near the $56 per barrel mark is expected to put a $6- to $7-billion dent in the province’s $40-billion budget. Mr. Prentice has already frozen hiring and introduced spending restrictions.

“I just laughed. I just thought I’ve never seen such political opportunism. This is really short-term gain for Wildrose, which is likely bargaining for cabinet seats,” Prof. Brownsey said. “We will be something of a laughingstock.”

What Wildrose did offer was the the only real opposition since 1971. Only Liberal Laurence Decore presented the brief, failed, possibility of an alternative government in 1993.

With healthy fundraising totals and a real party infrastructure, Wildrose has been the most effective opposition the province has ever seen. It exposed dozens of PC scandals and destroyed two PC premiers.

The longer the PCs stay in power, the harder it is for any alternative party to make inroads. Wildrose, for a time, broke that cycle. And the government was more responsive and more transparent because of it.

If only seven Wildrose MLA’s cross the floor on Wednesday, it will remain the Official Opposition — but a severely wounded one.

“It says that [democracy] is negotiable,” Prof. Brownsey said. “It’s a business transaction. It’s a merger. What does it have to do with democracy?”

National Post, with files from Postmedia News

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