Watch above: Tom Vernon has a closer look at the ever-changing make-up of the Alberta legislature
EDMONTON – Quiet talks to unite the Opposition caucus with Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservatives were already underway when Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith denounced two of her colleagues who had crossed the floor.
Premier Jim Prentice says an emissary from the Wildrose caucus approached his team a month ago with a pitch to bring together Alberta conservatives.
“Someone from the Wildrose approached someone in my office about the prospect of more than a single Wildrose member wanting to cross the floor,” Prentice said in an interview Thursday. “I initially didn’t take it very seriously. I said, ‘Have a coffee and see what happens.”‘
When it became clear the Wildrose was serious, Prentice had whip George VanderBurg handle the talks, which culminated in the premier and Smith meeting face-to-face a week ago.
“(The meeting) was to just ensure that I understood where she was coming from and that I could look her in the eye and vice versa,” he said.
On Nov. 24, Smith blasted two of her former Opposition members, Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan, who had bolted to join Prentice as backbenchers. She pilloried the pair for abandoning their principles to enjoy “the perks of power” and promised that there would be no more defections.
On Wednesday, Smith and eight more members of her caucus crossed the floor to join Prentice, saying they were ideologically sympatico and were personally impressed by Prentice’s leadership.
The defectors, particularly Smith, were condemned Thursday in editorials and on social media as power-hungry political opportunists, who betrayed their supporters and the 442,325 Albertans who voted Wildrose in the 2012 election.
Prentice also caught flak, particularly from NDP Leader Rachel Notley, for accepting the deal that tacks the PCs further toward the political right despite their winning power in 2012 on a platform of progressivism.
Prentice rejected that.
“I’m just a guy doing my job, right. (I’m) trying to deal with the finances of the province. Nine people approach representatives of my party and say, ‘We want to join your party.’ I should say no?” he asked.
“No one should equate democracy to conservatives fighting each other for the entertainment of the NDP.”
The defections leave the Wildrose with a tenuous grasp on official Opposition status. The party has five members and no leader. The Liberals also have five and are asking the Speaker to let them have the role.
The Wildrose executive said in an email that the party will begin the process of selecting a new leader in January.
Prentice’s statement on the month-long negotiations means the talks coincided with the fall session of the legislature.
That session was marked by cross-aisle civility during debate and question period. The Wildrose also helped the Tories amend the government’s proposed Accountability Act.
Speaker Gene Zwozdesky suggested the tone was unprecedented.
“You’ve gone for four weeks without a single point of order being raised during question period,” Zwozdesky complimented the chamber on the last day of the session Dec. 10. “You may well have set a record for all legislatures in Canada, perhaps throughout the entire Commonwealth.”
Government house leader Jonathan Denis agreed.
“It’s just been very positive working with the Opposition this session, and it hasn’t always been the case. The premier has clearly set a new tone.”
Smith could not be immediately reached for comment Thursday, but told talk radio station CHED that the face-to-face meeting with Prentice occurred on the last day of the session.
She said decisive factors for her were the Wildrose party’s four byelection losses to the PCs on Oct. 27 and the annual general meeting on Nov. 15.
At that meeting, while Smith was out of the room, party members voted down a motion to put into policy a statement affirming the rights of specific minority groups, including gays.
Smith said it was a revenge move by a socially conservative faction “to teach me and a couple of my colleagues a lesson for walking in the (gay) pride parade.
“That was devastating to me.”
The Wildrose has been fighting the perception it is bigoted ever since Smith refused in the 2012 election to take action against two candidates for comments perceived as racist and homophobic.
Smith said the faction was still fighting her “to go in a completely opposite direction than I wanted to take the party,” she said on CHED.
She said it will be up to Prentice to decide if she gets a spot in cabinet, although she has asked for “a meaningful role” for herself and those who came with her.
She plans to run again in her Highwood constituency in the next election, slated for the spring of 2016.
“I will make the case for why I made this choice.”