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The Week of the Long Knives

debt clock

Danielle Smith stands with me after signing the CTF’s “Balanced Budget and Debt-Free Alberta Pledge” in High River.

Callous. Cowardly. Dishonorable. Betrayal on a scale total unimaginable. 

This is my attempt to express my sincere shock, disappointment, and even anger in a constructive way, but also some original information not yet reported. I have expressed myself in short statements and in some long verbal conversations with friends, but a more detailed account is necessary as the dust settles.

Some background: I’ve never been a member of either the PC or Wildrose parties, but I’ve never hidden that I consider myself a passionate small-c conservative.  I worked with both the opposition Liberals and opposition Wildrose on issues of common concern, and even with the PCs where we could find alignment. I had great admiration for Danielle Smith and Rob Anderson and considered them allies on many issues as I fought for fiscal responsibility and accountability as the former Alberta Director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. I even gave serious consideration to running with them, for a time. I believed in them, and believed that they believed in what they said. Importantly, I considered them friends.

The Original Deal

I was given my first hints of the hurricane to come on Thursday (December 11th) , although those hints were far too obscured for me to even begin to predict what was about to happen. On Monday night, I spoke with top-level Wildrose officials (elected and unelected) who described  a “merger” of equals to me. The parties would be formally united with democratic votes by their memberships, potentially under the name ‘Conservative Party of Alberta’. There were promises (although vague) of cabinet posts. The “statement of principles” was spun as a Wildrose takeover of the PCs. Prentice would purge the PCs of all Red-Tory and corrupt Redford-era elements.

As someone with good friends in both camps, I wanted to believe this to be true. Life would certainly be easier and less complicated.

I tried to digest and rationalize it, but like bad seafood, it just would not go down, no matter how hard I tried. It just would not sit well with every moral bone that I had in my body. My friendships with the primary players made things all the more difficult; but the more I thought upon it – with an open mind – the more repulsed I became by it.

The deal torn up 

Sources tell me that the PC side of the negotiations leaked word of the impending capitulation to certain Wildrose officials who would have nothing to do with the deal. This led to the leak on Monday. This had the effect of burning the bridge behind Smith, Anderson and the committed crossers. Prentice could easily let them turn around and walk into political oblivion. They had already served their purpose to him by cutting the throats of their party’s supporters and pulling the pin on the way out. Prentice didn’t need them any longer, but if they wanted to cross the bridge, they were welcomed to publicly knock on his door. The defectors were simply – and entirely – outmanoeuvred.

That door knocking cumulated in the Wednesday PC caucus meeting in which I am told the PC caucus opposed the admission of the crossers. After a raucous debate and the invocation of Prentice’s significant authority over caucus, the crossers were approved, with a significantly altered deal. They would take the defectors – but ever so barely Rob Anderson, who righteously condemned their corruption all the while negotiating this team’s conditional surrender to them. They accepted that surrender, although it had to be more-a-less unconditional. That is why no new cabinet was sworn in on Thursday (December 18th). The promised cabinet plump-posts may eventually get paid out, but that will come after arm twisting and more deals in the New Year.

Although Prentice promised to guarantee the nominations of the defectors as PCs, that also was torn up as a sure thing. The PC Party president has promised that all 87 constituencies will have “open nominations.” I know many a formerly Wildrose-constituencies were the PC associations hate the guts of the former Wildrose MLA. It’s still to be seen if Prentice will honour his agreement to grandfather their Wildrose nominations into Progressive Conservativedom.

The marque items on which the defectors have hung their hat is policy. “We won,” Smith and crew have declared. ‘Prentice has adopted all of our policies!’ they have exclaimed. Why continue to fight his benevolent rule? This was the only real part of the deal on paper, and the one that I considered most convincing, briefly.

Just one day after the capitulation was made official, Prentice publicly backtracked on his commitment to truly balance the consolidated budget and stop taking on debt. Balanced budgets is the lowest common denominator for one to consider oneself a fiscal conservative. Prentice also appears to be seriously considering raising taxes.

You can almost hear Prentice telling Smith & Anderson, “I am altering the deal. Pray I don’t alter it any further.”

The prospect of seeing former Wildrose MLAs voting away the Alberta tax advantage and for an eighth consecutive deficit budget would be truly humiliating to any of them who have a principled bone in their body.

I personally stood with the vast majority of the Wildrose (and Liberal) caucus as they put their signatures on the CTF’s Balanced Budget and Debt-Free Alberta Pledge. Breaking this pledge would destroy any straws that they are grasping at to justify their defections.

Do our votes even matter?

We were already cynical about self-serving, cut-throat politicians. We watch Game of Thrones and House of Cards with glee as the ruthless, pole-climber kills his way to the top with brutal betrayals and duplicity. What could possibly confirm more our worst suspicions of politicians than the last week? 

If we are concerned about voter turnout and belief that our vote actually counts in a democracy, how can we possibly abide the actions of both the former Wildrose defectors and the Progressive Conservatives who accepted them? In a single back room deal made in the dead of night, they simply wiped away the wishes of nearly one third of Alberta voters who elected what they thought to be a principled conservative opposition, and frankly, a significant number of left-leaning voters who threw in with the PCs to keep Danielle Smith away from the levers of power.

What possibly could make people more cynical about self-serving, greedy, conniving politicians than this? What could more convince people that their votes do not matter than this? 

One Party State

Let’s be entirely honest about what this debate hinges upon: Do we need a one party state in Alberta? Arguments that the falling price of oil is so critical that we can no longer have an open, parliamentary debate are tied to the notion that this is somehow analogous to Britain’s coalition during the Second World War. I suppose that you may not want to debate war strategy in question period for the enemy to see, but how is a healthy, open debate on taxes and spending going to compromise our ability to continue to exist as a free people?

As the floor-crossers have repeatedly pointed out, oil was just $28.00 a barrel from 1993 to 2003, yet the Alberta government still somehow managed to keep itself safe from enemy invasion.

Smith’s original excuse for her defection was that she was worried that the upstart Alberta Party, Liberals or NDP would take power in Alberta if the ‘conservative’ vote was split. This is in space cadet territory, after the Wildrose and PCs received a combined 79% of the vote in the last election, something many bonafide one-party states would be happy receive in a free and fair election.

And so what if the odd left-leaning candidate wins a seat from time to time? Many do under the PC banner. I’m not one of them, but not all Albertans share the same views as I do, and they deserve representation from time-to-time. It’s one of the small courtesies of democracy.

Just throw in the towel?

Ontario’s conservatives have lost four consecutive elections in a row. How many of them would consider crossing the floor to join with the Liberals in these ensuing tough economic times? Alberta’s NDP have lost 29 elections. How many of them are considering throwing in with the PCs, despite there being more NDP-leaning MLAs in the PC caucus than there are in the NDP caucus? The Alberta Liberals have been out of power for more than 100 years, yet I don’t see them prepared to scuttle their party for an easy path to cabinet in the PC caucus.

You lose elections. Get over it. They have winners and losers, and some people in the middle known as the opposition. It’s your duty once on the ballot to follow through with whatever lot the voters have given you.

Danielle was tired and didn’t see an instant path to power for a period of a few months. The honourable thing would have been to resign and let someone else take up the fight. Instead, she sold out everyone who ever believed in her for a short shot at the levers of power.

Comparison to the federal unite-the-right movement

The Reform Party sought – in entirely different circumstances – to enlarge its tent. The United Alternative movement (which lead to the Canadian Alliance) and the Conservative Party of Canada merger between the Alliance and federal PCs was done with consultation with their members in a democratic process. What has happened in Alberta, is surely the furthest thing possible from the process that led to conservative unification at the federal levelEven most MLA and party staff weren’t consulted, let alone party members, or God forbid, constituents. Surely we have entered a period of madness if this is democracy. 

Even if the end goal here had been noble, the process under which it was done was the most anti-democratic way of doing it possible. Leaders and respected statesmen of the conservative movement could have floated ideas in public via the ‘Blue Committee’ and begun the process of open and transparent talks. I for one would have at least given it an open ear. 

But I don’t believe that even the end goal here – a united conservative party – has been even close to being achieved. Most of the Wildrose MLAs have gone over, but the activists and movement has not. I have spoken with hundreds of members and activists, and they are incandescent with anger at such a great betrayal of a cause by people who they believed had their back. These floor-crossing MLAs have taken themselves and their dignity with them, but little else. If anything, this has made a real merger more impossible than ever. 

Wildroses’ captain and officers may have abandoned ship and set fire to it on the way to the lifeboats, but its crew seems to me to still be aboard and ready to fight.

Some of their former supporters will surely throw up their hands at the corruption and betrayal of politics and walk away from this nasty business forever. Few could blame them. Many others are determined to obtain justice for what has happened and keep their movement alive. But very, very few have expressed an ounce of desire to follow their duplicitous leaders to the trough they so recently condemned. 

This is a “union” not with conservatives for the most part, but with a party that exists for the very purpose of existing. It is still, and is likely to remain, a party dominated by Red-Tories, liberals, union bosses, opportunists, careerists, corporate welfare lobbyists, and now turncoats who make Benedict Arnold look honourable. To be sure, there are good people inside of the Progressive Conservative Party – some of which I count as good friends – but only willful blindness can keep one from the conclusion that it is not a party devoted to conservative principles and ethical government. 

This is not akin to the Alliance and federal PCs uniting. This is akin to the Reform Party uniting with Jean Chretien’s Liberals. This will incredibly weaken the conservative voice and movement in Alberta, and perhaps even Canada.

This also destroys the primary accountability tool in our democracy: a vibrant and viable opposition. Preston Manning put the fear of God into the federal Liberals and forced them to make significant policy concessions; most prominently, Paul Martin’s 1995 budget, which laid the path for Canada’s fiscal recovery. 

Can we imagine for one moment that even before Paul Martin tabled his 1995 balanced budget plan, that the Reform Party would cross the floor to sit with the Liberals to have a voice “inside of the government,” to shepherd this new era of fiscal responsibility? Do we believe for one moment that after Chretien had captured his plucky Reform opponents that he would continue to fear and respect them, and follow through on the budget plan forced upon him?

What do Alberta’s conservatives do now?

Upon hearing the initial news and spin on Monday evening I came to the lethargic and incorrect conclusion that Alberta’s conservatives had only three options. 1) Make peace with the PCs. 2) Exile from public life. 3) Stay with a party destined to be overtaken by extremists and kooks.

Wildrose certainly is vulnerable to a takeover by extreme elements who have been long awaiting their moment, however that would only be possible if its otherwise reasonable, conservative and libertarian membership were not engaged. The incredible will to fight I have found among its members has made clear to me that this is by no means a forgone conclusion. It’s members are incensed at the great betrayal that has befallen them, but just don’t know yet what to do with that anger. They need credible leadership to direct that energy in a constructive direction.

Wildrosers shouldn’t be (and likely aren’t) under any illusions about winning the next election. The betrayal that has befallen them is too great to be in a position to do that; but if they can rally under a serious leader and prevent extreme elements from coming forward, they can have a real chance of taking back many of the constituencies that are ‘miss’represented and reform as the official opposition once again. They can provide an effective opposition, live to fight another day and in time, they can once again reposition to challenge for government.

That’s a lot of “what ifs,” but in the last year of Alberta politics we’ve gone through three premiers, two leaders of the opposition, and seen the two most powerful people atop the summit of Alberta politics descend from the most popular to the most loathed.

Don’t throw in your cards just yet.

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