Once again, Alberta’s without opposition

Tom Flanagan is professor emeritus of political science and distinguished fellow at the University of Calgary’s School of Public Policy. He has managed campaigns for conservative parties, including the 2012 Wildrose provincial campaign.

Opposition Leader Danielle Smith, House Leader Rob Anderson and other Wildrose MLAs are crossing the floor to join Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives after having failed to persuade the rest of the Wildrose MLAs to go with them. It’s a profoundly cynical act of political opportunism to make such a move without consulting the Wildrose executive and members. Leaders often throw inconvenient individuals under the bus – I’ve got a few tire marks myself. But this is the first time a leader has thrown the whole party under the bus.

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Moralizing aside, this is also a return to a deeply entrenched pattern of Alberta politics. Since becoming a province in 1905, Alberta has almost always had a government supported by a huge majority and opposed by an insignificant minority.

The model has worked well at times, but government without opposition is always at risk of running off the rails. It happened in the 1980s, after Don Getty replaced Peter Lougheed as premier. The Getty government proved unable to control its spending at a time of low oil prices; deficits mounted and Alberta quickly became a debtor province.

The conventional narrative is that Mr. Getty was forced out and the next PC leader, Ralph Klein, balanced the budget, cut taxes and privatized liquor sales, ushering in an era of good feeling. The story line is true but seriously incomplete. None of this would have happened without pressure from the provincial Liberals, who had become a formidable opposition party under the leadership of former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore. Mr. Decore threatened to outflank the PCs on the right by proposing “brutal” budget cuts, to which Mr. Klein responded with his own “massive” cuts.

Indeed, the 1993 Alberta election was a close race. Mr. Klein and the PCs won a majority of seats but took only 45 per cent of the popular vote, against 40 per cent for the Liberals. It looked as if the age of effective opposition had arrived. But Mr. Decore died tragically young, and the Liberals gradually withered into insignificance. Mr. Klein governed exceptionally well for almost a decade; but without a serious threat from the opposition, his government began to drift. Spending soared again, but with oil and gas prices rebounding to new highs, it hardly seemed to matter.

Enter Ed Stelmach, who replaced Mr. Klein in 2006 and won a typically huge PC majority in 2008, just in time for the Great Recession. Desperate for more revenue, Mr. Stelmach tried to raise royalties on oil and gas. That touched off a rebellion within the industry and made it possible for the struggling Wildrose party, which had lost its only seat in 2008, to emerge as a powerful opposition. Under the new leadership of Danielle Smith, Wildrose became a contender for power.

In the typical PC pattern, Mr. Stelmach was forced out by his own party and replaced by Alison Redford, who managed to hold off Wildrose in the 2012 election. But Ms. Redford herself became a casualty under a continual barrage of attacks from Wildrose about uncontrolled spending, both in her own office and in the provincial government at large.

The new PC leader, Jim Prentice, is now riding high after co-opting all the most attractive parts of the Wildrose agenda. Ms. Smith and the other defectors apparently feel that their work is done. They no longer see any meaningful difference between their opposition agenda and that of the governing party as led by Mr. Prentice. So why not join the government and get in line for some nice appointments? Why not indeed, if you no longer believe in what you’re doing?

But none of this would have happened if Wildrose had not been such a powerful opposition, for which Ms. Smith deserves full credit. Alberta would still be saddled with ineffective premiers and misguided policies, because politicians never clean up their act without the fear of being defeated.

With Wildrose wounded, Alberta will once again be left without effective opposition. The New Democratic Party is too closely tied to organized labour to prevail in this conservative province, and the Liberals seem mired in endless decline. Without any external threat, how long will it be until the PCs revert to their bad habits of cronyism, pork-barrelling and reckless spending?

Oh – and if I were you, Mr. Prentice, I’d watch my back. Do you really expect this crop of defectors, who have already demonstrated their lack of loyalty to their previous party, to remain loyal to you and yours?

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