OTTAWA – Federal Conservatives say they’re gobsmacked over the political tectonic shifts in Alberta this week, but they don’t have to reach too far into their own history to see parallels with the political pragmatism that’s at play.
Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith crossed the floor this week with eight MLAs to join the majority Progressive Conservative government. Federal members of Parliament – many of whom supported Wildrose – were caught off guard by the move.
Some observers have pointed to Wildrose’s disappointing showing in recent byelections as the catalyst for her startling decision.
And so it was in 2003, when a relatively new Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper lost a key byelection to the Progressive Conservatives, who were in fifth place nationally at the time. Harper spent countless hours campaigning with the candidate in Perth-Middlesex, to no avail.
“Stephen made the decision he had to merge with the Tories after the Perth-Middlesex byelection,” former adviser Tom Jarmyn told author Bob Plamondon in his book about the merger, Full Circle.
Harper’s spokesman, Jason MacDonald, suggested Wednesday that Smith’s move had the prime minister’s seal of approval. For some time, Harper has dissuaded his MPs from openly campaigning for one Alberta provincial party or another.
“We don’t comment on provincial politics. But federally, all conservatives working together has been a good thing.”
That sort of Harper pragmatism, versus strict adherence to political ideology, is what’s motivating both Danielle Smith and Alberta Premier Jim Prentice, say Conservative insiders.
Prentice has also brought into his fold players from the federal scene, including former ministers Rob Merrifield and Jay Hill – both of whom hailed from the Alliance side of the family.
Edmonton MP James Rajotte, who for a time considered running for the PC leadership, said that the Wildrose moves will turn out to be a positive for the federal Conservatives.
“My sense is that the Wildrose supporters will now generally, at least in my area, rejoin the PC fold, so the reunification will make it easier for the federal party because everyone’s working on the same page then,” said Rajotte.
But Edmonton NDP MP Linda Duncan, the only non-Conservative to hold a federal riding in the province, sees it differently. She said the fact Prentice took in nine MLAs from the right-wing Wildrose party suggests his party is not progressive at all.
Duncan also thinks the floor crossing will rub many Albertans the wrong way, forcing some to consider the NDP.
“What they have done with their massive crossing of the floor is just so against our principles, and people are just going to say, what the hell have we elected?” said Duncan.
Conservative MP Blake Richards, who represents an area with many Wildrose party supporters, said he has supporters from both provincial parties to begin with and doesn’t see much impact federally.
“We’re a unified team when it comes to the federal Conservative team, I don’t think anything will change as a result of this,” said Richards.