By George Brown, editor
It shouldn’t have been a surprise when the Wildrose Alliance party announced last week two sitting members of the Progressive Conservative caucus had crossed the floor to fortify their ranks. Rumours had circulated for months. Leader Danielle Smith was just waiting for Premier Ed Stelmach to leave town on vacation.
Sulking former cabinet minister Heather Forsyth and rising star (in his own mind) Rob Anderson increased the political cache of the Wildrose Alliance by switching allegiances less than halfway through the term of this government. The disgruntled and the naive join Paul Hinman in the legislature, leaping over the New Democrats to rank second among opposition parties. They’ll now have access to more parliamentary research support and they’ll have the floor more often in question period.
Is this the best way to build a respectable, electable alternative to the lurching Tories, courting disgruntled MLAs who’ve been punted to the back benches? These MLAs, some former cabinet members and defeated leadership candidates, are the reason the party, the government and the province are in such a mess today.
Smith says they left the Tories on principle; more likely Forsyth and Anderson saw an opportunity to thumb their nose at Stelmach. It’s not a palace revolt. It’s separating the wheat from the chaff.
Personally, I abhor floor-crossing politicians. I said so to David Kilgour, who wore out the carpet walking back and forth across the House of Commons; I wasn’t fond of Belinda Stronach before or after she left the federal Conservatives to become a short-lived Liberal cabinet minister; yet I can acknowledge the contributions PC cabinet ministers like Stan Woloshyn and Gene Zwozdesky have made to Alberta. It doesn’t mean I condone that they switched sides.
You can argue all day whether you and your neighbours vote for the man or the party when you go behind the curtain to cast your ballot and whether the elected MLA is responsible to the party that invested time and money in his development or to his constituents. Either way, when an MLA crosses the floor, someone is cheated. The actions of Anderson and Forsyth have renewed the cry for recall legislation and given rise to demands the treacherous twosome resign their seats and run for their new party in byelections. Neither is likely to happen anytime soon.
The problem with the Stelmach government is that it is neither Progressive nor Conservative. It’s a dog’s breakfast of every political notion. For 40 year’s we’ve said you could dress a scarecrow in blue and orange and it would win on election day. Two years ago Albertans elected 72 of them. Because the Tories have been the only party capable of forming the government, it attracted power-seeking candidates from across the political spectrum. The Tory caucus has some MLAs who are socially progressive (whatever that means), others who are fiscally conservative; members who want to suck up to Big Oil and others who want tax the golden goose into oblivion. There are MLAs who want to reduce the size of government and those who long for the Lougheed days when the government was a major player in the economy.
Albertans don’t know anymore what the Progressive Conservative government stands for; they won’t know for two years what the Wildrose Alliance stands for, yet according to a survey last month, the fledgling party has the support of 39 per cent of voters compared to 25 per cent for the government. Stelmach has the distinction of being the least popular premier among voters with 14 per cent. A year ago he had an approval rating of 43 per cent. This government has bounced from one crisis to another in its short life — most of its own creation. You can’t blame the worldwide recession for the mess the Tories made of health care, the botched H1N1 vaccination rollout, bills 44 and 50, and the lack of a sound financial plan during the last (final?) boom.
Since the Dirty Thirties Calgary politicians and their backroom boys have run the government in Alberta. It was quite a shock naturally when a farmer from Edmonton won the leadership of the governing Tories. Three years later they’re still foaming at the mouth but it’s a bit of a stretch to think they would vacate the corridors of power to try their luck with a fringe party comprising an unelected leader, an MLA who’s already been defeated once wearing the Wildrose mantle, and two traitors they helped elect. The Wildrose Alliance can’t afford to be seen as a rump of Calgarians who feel they don’t influence government any longer.
If Stelmach wants to redefine Progressive Conservative values and refocus his government’s mission, he needs to show the door to a few more disgruntled MLAs and put a few of his old horses out to pasture. This party tends to favour tenure over new blood. The pending cabinet shuffle is the perfect opportunity the premier needs to evaluate his ministers and the up-and-comers and repurpose his government.
This will be his last chance.