As a protest party, it proved to be incredibly effective, influencing government policy on a number of key issues. Some may say that the populist political movement had achieved many of its goals when talks began over merging with the governing party, but there was little question that it could be far more effectual in government.
EDMONTON — Alberta’s Wildrose party has unanimously rejected former leader Danielle Smith’s “reunification proposal” and will begin a new leadership selection process in early 2015.
President David Yager has stepped down and will now serve as vice-president of fundraising. He will be replaced by Jeff Callaway, who previously served as president from 2008 to 2010.
The party rejected suggestions from Smith and Tory Premier Jim Prentice that nine MLA floor-crossings Wednesday mark a “unification” of Alberta’s small-c conservatives.
No, I’m not talking about Alberta’s Wildrose Party, which we learned last week had been in secret negotiations with the governing Progressive Conservatives before nine of its members, including leader Danielle Smith, jumped ship and what was left of the party voted against the unification proposal. This was the story of the United Farmers of Alberta (UFA), which began as a non-partisan lobby group in 1909 and successfully pressured the governing Liberals into adopting a number of its demands.
Following the 1917 election, many suggested the UFA should merge with the Liberals or Conservatives. Instead, it entered politics, winning a by-election in 1919. Similar to the Wildrose, the UFA campaigned as a grassroots political party, in which members would be responsible to vote based on the will of their constituencies, rather than strictly following the party line. To their surprise, they won a majority government in 1921, relegating the Liberals to the opposition benches — the party never recovered — and governing for 14 straight years.
In the wake of last week’s floor crossings, some have argued the Wildrose was nothing more than a protest party that achieved its goals by forcing the resignations of former premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford, which paved the way for the more conservative Jim Prentice to take office. Many have also made analogies between this situation and the merger of the federal Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservatives.
“Preston Manning’s activist Reform party admitted publicly that it couldn’t take down the Liberals without their federal PC friends. It wasn’t a defeat when he folded; no one remembers Manning as a loser. His moment just ended,” argued Meaghan MacSween in Tuesday’s National Post.
There are, however, some important differences between the unite-the-right movement, which culminated in the creation of the federal Conservative party, and the events that took place in Alberta.
It is true that, much like Wildrose, the Reform Party was made up of small-c conservatives, many of whom broke away from the PCs after becoming disillusioned with former prime minister Brian Mulroney. But the main impetus for the merger was that the competition between the two parties was splitting the right-of-centre vote, which allowed the Liberals to stay in power, creating worse outcomes for small-c conservatives.
In Alberta, there was never any chance that having two right-wing parties would allow the Liberals or NDP to sneak up the middle. Instead, a right-of-centre party in opposition was able to move the Tories to the right. In other words, it created better outcomes for small-c conservative voters.
“Like many long-time conservatives, I fled the Alberta PCs in disgust, and cheered as Danielle Smith and the Wildrose brought down the government of Mr. Stelmach and Ms. Redford,” wrote Peter G. Keith of Calgary in a letter to the editor. “But now that we have the most accomplished Conservative premier in Canada — eat your heart out Ontario — our conservative family can be reunited.”
Yet by anointing Jim Prentice, all the PCs did was change their leader. The party that elected two horrendous leaders, the party that threw out its commitment to balanced budgets at the first sign of trouble and the party that went along with Redford’s flagrant abuses of the public’s trust remains largely intact. It is rotten to the core. And it’s going to take more than a new face at the top to fix it.
Instead of comparing the Wildrose to the Reform Party, it is more apt to compare it to the UFA, or to Social Credit, or even to the PCs of 1971. Alberta’s history is replete with upstart populist parties overtaking longstanding governments.
Even after Prentice became Premier, the Wildrose had an opportunity to stage a political revolution: Polls indicated the party still had a fair amount of support before the Wildrose Nine stabbed their supporters in the back.
To their credit, the remaining Wildrose MLAs are keeping a stiff upper lip and trying to carry on — announcing Monday that veteran MLA Heather Forsyth would serve as interim leader until the party can pick a new one next year (Forsyth has said she will not run in the next election). But party brass must know it would take nothing short of a miracle to recover from the loss of a charismatic leader and the majority of its caucus in one fell swoop.