One year ago today, nine former Wildrose MLAs crossed the floor to sit on the government benches.
One year ago today, virtually every pundit and political scientist in Alberta wrote Wildrose off for dead, and with reasonable justification.
One year ago today, the wheels of history began to turn in a direction that would lead directly to an NDP government and where we are today.
With 72 seats in the legislature and facing a pitiful rump of an opposition, the consensus was former Premier Jim Prentice was poised almost certainly to continue the previous government’s 44 year reign. Wildrose was decapitated, leaderless and its very existence appeared to most to be at an end.
Just days after the floor crossing, I attended the Wildrose Christmas “party” in the Highwood Constituency, until then represented by those members’ party leader. I didn’t know what to expect. What I found was a room full of shell-shocked party members – who despite the incredible betrayal they had just suffered – almost unanimously rejected following their former leader. That night, I knew that the party still had some fight in it, and that if it could be rallied, that it would be a force more motivated than it ever had been before.
I asked myself a simple question: “If the Wildrose didn’t exist, would we have to invent it?” The answer was simple for me.
In the confusion of what should have been a happy Christmas season, Heather Forsyth stepped up to the the plate as our interim leader on December 22, 2014. In a crowded basement in Calgary, she spoke for the 442,000 Albertans who had just had their votes stolen from them.
Friends and I gathered over the holidays to map out a path forward.
For us, the very future of conservatism as a political force in Alberta was at stake. Facing these odds, it felt like the weight of the world was on us.
There was considerable pressure placed on Wildrose candidates, members and supporters to give up the fight in exchange for a comfortable place at the table.
A commitment to conservative principles and ideas was undermined in an undemocratic move made by insiders and not Albertans.
But even as we tried to pick ourselves up off the mat, it became obvious that we were careening towards an early election that we were not anywhere close to ready for.
Despite losing his son, Brian Jean won our leadership race and led Wildrose into an election just a week and a half after taking over the party.
The budget raised 59 new or higher taxes, costing the average household $2,400 a year. I joked at the time that it was Alberta’s first NDP budget. Until Notley’s budget a few months later, it constituted the single largest tax increase in Alberta’s history. Believing Wildrose to be dead, it was a miscalculated left-turn to blunt the NDP. In the end, the budget was viewed by people across the political spectrum as yet another cynical power play.
Still, Wildrose could not entirely overcome the bone-deep damage done by the floor-crossings in time. Many voters still saw the defectors as “Wildrose” floor-crossers, and had a difficult time distinguishing between between those MLAs, and the Wildrose Party itself. It was difficult for many to believe that the Wildrose was capible of challenging for government after such revent events.
While the NDP formed a majority government, Wildrose finished with 21 seats – forming the largest official opposition in a generation.
With the previous government relegated to a distant third place and nearly extinct as a political force in rural and small-town Alberta, Wildrose is now focusing on growing in major urban centres as a critical part of forming government in 2019. Our victory in Calgary-Foothills was a major step forward in this. But while the Wildrose may be the strongest conservative party in the race, there still remain good conservatives who were PCs during the last election.
Thoughts have begun to turn towards how conservatives – broadly speaking – can form government in 2019. Just this week, PC MLA Mike Ellis and I held a Christmas Pub Night, open to members of both parties to get to know one another. Roughly 200 people came out to just talk to each other and see if there are enough common values and principles.
But just as there were politicians who refused to join a consolidated conservative movement federally, I expect that some of the old elements of the PC party would not be a good fit in such a project in Alberta. Further, those who so badly breached the trust of Albertans in last December’s events have a long road back in regaining any trust, and would be well advised to let the conversation take place in their absence at this time if they want it to succeed.
As emotional, bruising and often hurtful as the events of the last year have been, I believe that it’s time to have an honest and frank discussion about the future of the conservative movement in Alberta.
Many conservative Wildrosers and conservative PCs did find common ground at Monday night’s get-together, but it’s a long road ahead that must be driven by the grassroots, and not MLAs or party elites.