Danielle Smith knew she was in trouble. It was late November and Wildrose was in disarray. She was losing friends and supporters to the “old and tired” Progressive Conservative Party she had spent her career criticizing. After only a few weeks in the Premier’s office, Jim Prentice had undone years of steady gains by her Official Opposition and had co-opted much of her playbook.
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Before Mr. Prentice’s first day in the Legislature, before he faced his first volley in Question Period, before the falling price of oil broke the province’s budget, negotiations had already begun between members of Ms. Smith’s party and the Tories. Plans were being hatched for a mass defection of anywhere from a few MLAs to her entire caucus.
Back in her hometown of High River, still rebuilding from the disastrous 2013 floods, Ms. Smith hadn’t had the success she’d hoped getting money flowing. Despite a run as one of the province’s most successful opposition leaders, she began thinking it was time to stop fighting and join a Premier whose politics she was starting to admire.
It was time for Danielle Smith’s second act in Alberta politics. What she set in motion would lead to one of the most significant upheavals in Alberta politics and one of Canada’s more shocking political betrayals. First, she had to find out who was with her.
Even Mr. Prentice didn’t believe the first inquiry about a mass defection by one of Ms. Smith’s lieutenants was serious. During the week of Nov. 10, a Wildrose MLA approached Mr. Prentice’s chief of staff, Mike Percy. There had been some chatter between MLAs in both parties about floor crossings, but this was different. The request for a meeting was brought to Mr. Prentice.
“I said, ‘Have a cup of coffee, see if it’s serious.’ I didn’t actually think it was a serious inquiry, initially. They had a couple of discussions and it became evident that this was serious and more than a single person was interested,” Mr. Prentice said Thursday.
The first conversation came after four by-election losses on Oct. 28 that stung Wildrose. While the party had long been seen as a potential government-in-waiting, its strength was based in rural southern Alberta. To end the 43-year Tory dynasty, Ms. Smith knew that Wildrose would need to seduce voters in Edmonton and Calgary. In the by-elections, the party stumbled backward, losing support.
“We fought the by-elections tooth-and-nail and I was surprised with the results. That’s when I confronted the fact for the first time that we had not succeeded in convincing mainstream Alberta voters in Calgary and Edmonton that we were an option for them,” she said.
As panic began to set in, conversations continued between Mr. Percy and his Wildrose contact. Mr. Prentice then pushed talks to a higher level, sending Government Whip George VanderBurg to negotiate with a Wildrose team that included party House Leader Rob Anderson – himself a former Tory who had defected in the past to Wildrose.
While much of the Wildrose caucus was looking for an exit, the party seemed to erupt in open rebellion. Hours after Ms. Smith endorsed an anti-discrimination policy at a Wildrose conference on Nov. 14, party members voted to reject the policy. Since being elected leader in 2009, Ms. Smith had spent years trying to recast the party as LGBT-friendly. When Wildrose was poised for a breakthrough in the 2012 election, it came to light that candidate Allan Hunsperger had earlier written about gays and lesbians, saying they would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire.”
At the ballot box, some voters decided Ms. Smith and her party were too rough around the edges to the run the province. The policy in November had been her attempt to mend fences. Her years of hard work evaporated in a show of hands. Ms. Smith later learned that members of the powerful socially conservative wing of the party were angry with her attempts to recast Wildrose as a moderate party. The policy was thrown out as a form of punishment.
“I wasn’t interested in leading an increasingly strident right-wing party. I wanted to create a party that was mainstream and could form government. When I looked at Mr. Prentice, his policy ideas, resolve and shared interests, there isn’t a lot of difference between what he wants to do in government and what I want to do,” she said.
A week later on Nov. 24, Ms. Smith lost two of her closest allies – MLAs Ian Donovan and Kerry Towle defected to the Tories.
Publicly, Ms. Smith chastised the two for being seduced by the “perks of power,” going as far as to say that her friendship with Ms. Towle was over. A senior Wildrose official confirmed that hours after Ms. Smith announced there would be no more defections, she was confronted with the ongoing negotiations with Mr. Percy and was given an ultimatum to join the mass defection. “There were no meetings or negotiations approved by Danielle before then, [the revolt] was a fait accompli,” said the source.
In the weeks that followed, many commented that Ms. Smith seemed defeated and had lost her zest during debates. Privately, she realized that her time at Wildrose was coming to an end.
The last days
Only hours after she had stood in the House during the last day of the legislative session on Dec. 10, Ms. Smith drove to Edmonton’s Fairmount Hotel MacDonald and met Mr. Prentice for the first time.
While the Premier maintains he initiated none of the conversations with Wildrose members to defect, he did call for the meeting with Ms. Smith. He thought the time was right to look her in the eye and see if she was serious.
“My situation changed when I met Mr. Prentice,” said Ms. Smith of the meeting. “I find him sincere, I think he has a firm grasp on what needs to be done. He’s been very honest about the challenges we face.”
Things moved quickly after that. Word began to spread beyond the Wildrose caucus of what was developing. A document was drawn up, pledging the Tories to adopt many of the Wildrose policies – allowing free votes on moral issues, upholding parent and landowner rights, and committing to increasing patient choice in health care.
After a series of difficult one-on-one meetings with her MLAs, Ms. Smith brought the proposal to her caucus the following Tuesday. The debate was far from settled and the number of MLAs willing to make the jump continued to fluctuate throughout the day. In the afternoon, former Reform Leader Preston Manning was brought in to give his advice.
“I told them that they should take pride in what they’d accomplished. They managed to get change in the government leadership to someone compatible with their values,” said Mr. Manning, of his one hour conversation with the caucus.
By the time Mr. Manning left, the caucus was still debating. That evening, sources say a number of Wildrose MLAs met with Mr. Prentice. According to the Premier, he was still unsure how many were willing to defect the next morning when he met with his own party to approve the deal.
A source from Wildrose with knowledge of the process confirms a deal was on the table to give Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson cabinet posts. However, the lengthy PC caucus meeting at Government House on Wednesday torpedoed that.
It became clear to Mr. Prentice that “it wasn’t going to be easy to bring them in in any meaningful way,” the source said.
That evening, Mr. Prentice stood by Ms. Smith as he announced that she and eight members of her caucus were becoming Tories. The long negotiation was complete.
The rise and fall of Wildrose
The phone messages and e-mails continue to pour in to Ms. Smith’s High River headquarters. Office manager Lynn Bailey gets to respond to the many questions and grenades lobbed her way.
Two-thirds of the commentary has taken Ms. Smith to task for joining the Tories and abandoning Wildrose. That’s not surprising, said Ms. Bailey. “You always hear the negative stuff first.”
Those who posted to Facebook and Tweeted their anger have stuck to familiar themes: Ms. Smith betrayed her constituents by parlaying principles for a position of power; she didn’t fight nearly as hard as she could have to help those affected by the flooding.
Ms. Smith had advocated for the people who needed government assistance to rebuild their lives. However, she wasn’t able to satisfy everyone who qualified for the Disaster Recovery Program.
In October, the minister of Alberta municipal affairs produced some startling numbers. Of the 4,591 DRP applications filed, 1,174 remained unresolved; 952 of those unsettled claims were on hold. There is talk that Ms. Smith will be able to do more now that she’s part of the PC machinery.
“I’m really hopeful that she’s able to do as part of the government what she wasn’t able to do as opposition leader – and that was to get the government to speed up and settle claims,” said Bruce Masterman, a High River councillor and a member of the DRP committee. “These things need to be settled.”
Town Mayor Craig Snodgrass agreed that DRP has “failed the individual.”
“With Danielle being leader of the Wildrose, I didn’t need to use her very much. The biggest reason was I needed a chequebook,” Mr. Snodgrass said. “I needed the guys who write the cheques. Now she’s in a position of power and has access to the finances we require.”
There is little doubt this is a marriage of political convenience. Mr. Prentice needs Ms. Smith and her former Wildrose members to keep the Tories connected in rural Alberta; Ms. Smith needs the PCs’ clout to get things done. With both parties so ideologically close to one another, Ms. Smith said she was finished being the “armchair quarterback” in the legislature. Instead of bringing criticism daily, she said it was time to unite Alberta’s conservative family.
That said, questions abound. Which party is now the official opposition? If both Wildrose and the Liberals have the same number of seats, does the call go to the Wildrose for having been the opposition under Ms. Smith? And really, does it matter? The Tories have tightened their grip on Alberta and there are no real challengers on the scene.
As for the once promising Wildrose, this is what it has come to: A funding website has been set up to raise money to “help ease the sudden unemployment of WRP staff due to the floor crossing of MLAs less than ten days to Christmas. Four of these employees are to be parents in a few months.”
With files from Josh Wingrove in Ottawa