History will show that the beginning of the end of the Wildrose Party of Alberta was not September 6, 2014, when Jim Prentice won the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, but September 10, when Canada’s Ambassador to the United States, Gary Doer, told the Canadian Press that Premier-elect Prentice was the best choice to advance Canada’s energy superpower aspirations. Ambassador Doer’s comments were probably scripted by the Prime Minister’s Office, but even if they weren’t, they were certainly sanctioned by PMO, which effectively announced that the federal Conservative party had switched sides in Alberta, and would henceforth be allied with the PCs in pursuit of its political and policy objectives.
Ever since the birth of the Reform Party in the late 1980s, Alberta’s enduring conservative political monoculture had been split between the Red Tories who dominated the federal and provincial PC parties, and the true blue populist conservative ideologues who built the Reform Party. Even after Reform absorbed the remnants of old federal PC party into the new Conservative Party of Canada, there was little truck or trade with Alberta’s provincial PCs. In fact, the people who built the Wildrose party included many veteran Reformers, using the playbook they had written to re-engineer Canada’s national conservative movement. As recently as 2012, one of its principal authors, Jason Kenney, expressed the continuing deep hostility between the federal and provincial Conservatives in an indiscreet email where he described then-Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk as “a complete and utter asshole.”
The Wildrose party and campaign team in the 2012 Alberta election was populated largely by federal Reform-Conservative operatives, including former Harper PMO staffers. They included campaign manager Tom Flanagan, longtime mentor to Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and, in another era, Stephen Harper. But for a couple of “bozo eruptions” by Wildrose candidates (which were expertly orchestrated and exaggerated by the PCs as displays of “right wing extremism”, with generous amplification by the media), the federal Conservative proxy party might have taken over the provincial government. In truth, though, they weren’t quite ready for prime time and Alberta voters, sensing this, gave the PCs another majority, but with a big Wildrose opposition.
The stage seemed set for a Wildrose victory in the next election, especially after Alison Redford, the international human rights lawyer whom the PCs had inexplicably chosen as their leader, went completely power-mad as premier, and soon became the universally reviled “Red Queen” of Alberta. It wasn’t so much the abuse of perks that did in Redford, but her utter inability to build friendships and loyalty within government, which led to the tsunami of leaks about her expensive global travel itinerary, presumptuous use of government aircraft, regal tastes in accommodations, and congenital imperiousness.
Despite her inflated sense of entitlement, Redford actually ran a surprisingly conservative government. In running for the PC leadership and the 2012 election, she had positioned further to the left than any of her predecessors, and seduced a huge segment of the public sector voting bloc. In power, though, her government shifted sharply to the right, taking a hard line on civil service wage negotiations, pensions and bargaining rights, and freezing funding for post-secondary education. For a while, it even looked like the PCs might try to neuter the powerful Alberta Teachers Association.
Wildrose had a field day with the leaks, of course, and soon cruised to the top of the polls. But in its determination to shed the extremist label and position as a moderate, mainstream alternative to the PCs, the party opposed virtually everything the government proposed, including the boldly conservative public sector initiatives. Leader Smith, meanwhile, went out of her way to court civil servants and other unconventional allies, including gay rights groups.
This left the grassroots of the Wildrose Party, and particularly its hard core federal Tories, confused and wondering which of the two provincial parties was more genuinely conservative. When all the friends Redford never made in the PC party, caucus and cabinet finally decided to depose her, Smith and the Wildrosers lost their biggest asset in the competition for conservative hearts and minds. Worse, that competition instantly tilted back to the Tories when former Harper cabinet minister Prentice emerged as the unbeatable frontrunner in the Redford succession.
Wildrose strenuously argued that Prentice was as red as Redford, which rang hollow in light of their own centrist drift. They also dismissed his record in Ottawa as insubstantial, which denied the obvious trust that Harper had placed in him. And they pointed out his brief stint as volunteer saviour of the Gateway pipeline had produced no results, which wasn’t enough to offset his credibility as a Bay Street-seasoned and well-connected Canadian energy advocate – especially after it was validated by Harper’s ambassador in Washington.
It must be said that Prentice and his team managed the transition to the premier’s office brilliantly, complete with the wholesale filching of Wildrose policy and messaging on government aircraft, accountability, and property rights, to name but a few. They were also blessed with fortuitous economic circumstances that allowed them to produce a more-or-less balanced budget. More recently, with the fall in oil prices and revenues, the Prentice government is deftly positioning as safe hands in volatile economic circumstances – exactly as the federal Conservatives have done for the better part of ten years.
But just in case any Alberta conservative voter missed the message that Premier Prentice is basically reconstituting the Harper government in Edmonton, he has liberally salted it with former federal Conservative MPs and staffers including Jay Hill, Rob Merrifield, Mike Storeshaw, Ian Brodie, and Richard Dicerni.
The reward for all this was the clean sweep of four October by-elections and the resulting rapid destabilization of Danielle Smith and the Wildrose caucus, climaxing with this week’s virtual reunification of the provincial conservative tribe.
There is and will be much hand-wringing about how this weakens democracy in Alberta. Many Wildrose supporters and donors will understandably feel betrayed. Smith, as captain, should have gone down with the ship. But in the short-term, at least, she and her party have done much good for the province. The 43-year-old PC dynasty will not soon return to the reprehensible “culture of corruption and entitlement” that shook down municipalities and other public institutions for donations to the Tory party, favoured loyal Conservative ridings with schools, roads and hospitals, and paid scandalous salaries and severances to friends of the government. Most encouraging are signs that proper walls between the government and the bureaucracy are being rebuilt, which augers well for reform and rationalization of the public sector. One hopes that some of the bright, principled Wildrose staffers who worked very hard to bring these changes about will also be welcomed into the merged government.
The reuniting of the federal and provincial conservatives in Alberta will move the provincial government incrementally to the right, and increase and strengthen the grassroots infrastructure of the federal party within the province as it prepares for the 2015 election. Conspiracists on the left may see this as part of a dark master plan by the Harper Conservatives to extend their tentacles deep into Canada’s political infrastructure. More likely is that, like most political evolution, Alberta’s recent transformations have been ad hoc and circumstantial. Just to feed their paranoia, though, it’s worth noting that a number of federal Conservative operatives are currently involved in the Ontario PC leadership race. No doubt the prime minister hopes they will ultimately install a kindred Conservative spirit in the premier’s office. Someone like Jim Prentice, for instance.
Paul Bunner is the editor of C2C Journal. He worked on the Wildrose campaign during the 2012 Alberta election.