Former Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith with her new boss, Premier Jim Prentice, at yesterday’s news conference announcing the defection of the nine Wildrose caucus members to the Progressive Conservative Party. (Photo by Dave Cournoyer, used with permission.) Below: Another shot of the pair in an informal moment at the start of the news conference.

It’s a character issue.

Certainly the recent conduct of the leadership of the Wildrose Party, which this afternoon culminated with the desertion of most of its key elected officials to Premier Jim Prentice’s ruling Progressive Conservative caucus leaving their loyalists and supporters in the lurch, has to be considered as an issue of character.

The ability of Parliamentarians to cross the floor is essential to the operation of our Canadian system of Responsible Government, and so not every floor-crosser ought to be be described as behaving badly.

But when more than half a caucus, elected and supported by voters who put their faith in the idea their party offered something different and better, decamps and joins their former enemy, it is hard to summon up excuses, or indeed anything but contempt, on their behalf.

In addition, when you consider key events in the career of former Alberta Opposition leader Danielle Smith, it’s also difficult to conclude that issues of character have not been in play before.

Indeed, at a number of key moments in her career, Ms. Smith has left a trail of devastation in her wake that, at the very least, suggests a lack of empathy for co-workers, rivals and now her own supporters.

Her abandonment of her own Wildrose Party because the road ahead seemed to be a hard one – and possibly also to get a post in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet – suggests what we might euphemistically call a “lack of moral fibre.”

Moreover, while we should generally give the benefit of the doubt and assume a lone floor-crosser acted out of genuine principle, that is harder to do when a legislator has crossed twice in opposite directions, as Wildrose House Leader Rob Anderson did yesterday.

That is why, of course, Sir Winston Churchill’s observation about his own floor crossing strikes most of us as hilarious: “Anyone can rat,” he famously said. “It takes a certain ingenuity to re-rat.”

When Ms. Smith and Mr. Anderson changed parties in the company of seven other members of the Wildrose caucus whom they had obviously persuaded to come along, it failed to pass the ethical sniff test, notwithstanding the doctrinal similarity of the two parties. That’s because “there is no difference” is most definitely what Wildrose supporters and donors were being told as the plotting proceeded apace in secrecy.

When I first met Ms. Smith, she had just joined the Calgary Herald. This was at a time labour relations there were in a downward spiral and an ugly strike was looming. The newspaper’s proprietor in Central Canada brought in a publisher with a reputation as a union buster during this time, and Ms. Smith was one of several employees hired not long before the strike began on Nov. 8, 1999. I was the vice-president of the journalists’ union, so, yes, I have an interest in this ancient history.

Whatever her motivations for coming on staff, Ms. Smith crossed picket lines and worked throughout the strike.

Now, I will admit that I do not agree with Jack London’s prescription for strikebreakers. There are many reasons some of my colleagues crossed their co-workers’ picket lines, some of them even saw themselves as acting on principle. More were frightened, suffering from loss of income, under pressure from family members or a host of similar reasons. One, nearing retirement, had been told by someone in a senior job he would lose his pension. Only a few acted out of hard-nosed self-interest.

To me, though, for someone to come in from outside to play that role in a long-standing labour dispute, no matter how misguided the unionized employees may have been and even though it is completely legal to cross picket lines in the province of Alberta, does not speak well of a person’s character. I’ll respect your right to disagree.

Ms. Smith had come to the attention of the Herald’s management partly as a result of her activities as an elected trustee on the Calgary Public Board of Education. She was also known, I am sure, as a former Fraser Institute apparatchik with the right ideological credentials and temperament for the new owners of the Herald and other papers in the then-Southam newspaper chain.

This was a period after the 1998 civic election when the CBOE became so dysfunctional that the minister of education used his legal power to dismiss the trustees and put an administrator in change until the next scheduled election.

Ms. Smith alone can hardly be blamed for this situation. The board’s notorious troubles seemed to have arisen after the 1998 civic vote from an ideological rift between trustees committed to public education as traditionally funded and supported and a couple of right-wing trustees more sympathetic to market fundamentalist nostrums – one of whom was Ms. Smith.

Whatever it was, Ms. Smith’s role in drawing private notes that had been exchanged by trustees with whom she disagreed to the attention of the public, even if only by responding to media requests for comments, is troubling.

In 2009, author Dave Cournoyer published a revealing look back at this situation. Click on the links to read each edition: Part I, Part II, Part III and Part IV.

It seemed ironic in light of this history when Ms. Smith accused MLA Joe Anglin a few weeks ago of secretly recording proceedings of the Wildrose caucus, an accusation for which she has never provided evidence.

And now there is the still-unfinished business of the demise of the Wildrose Party legislative caucus, which came to a climax yesterday when Ms. Smith, Mr. Anderson and seven other Wildrose MLAs struck a deal with Mr. Prentice’s PCs and were allowed to join the government caucus.

If this was a legitimate matter of high principle, why was it carried out in secrecy?

As Ms. Smith yesterday tacitly admitted, the plotting was hidden for weeks from the Wildrose Party’s financial backers, mostly small donors who believed in the party’s purported principles and probably could have found something else on which to spend their limited funds. It was also a secret from voters generally, many of whom until hours ago were still seriously considering casting their ballots for the Wildrose Party.

Notwithstanding his PC party’s history of entitlement and arrogance, one can at least see sound political reasons for the conduct of Premier Prentice and his closest advisors. It is much harder to perceive the actions of the Wildrose floor-crossers as anything but self-interested, despite the protagonists’ mutual efforts at yesterday’s news conference to characterize Ms. Smith’s efforts as honourable and courageous.

Certainly Ms. Smith has left – as she must have known she would – bitterness, anger and a sense of betrayal in her wake. I am sure there are longstanding friendships that will be severed forever as a result of her conduct, as well as many citizens who will be permanently disillusioned about our democracy.

Mind you, I suppose, from the point of view of the Prentice PCs and their opposite numbers in the Harper Government whence the premier sprang, this state of affairs is entirely satisfactory. After all, when unsupportive voters grow cynical about the meaning of their vote and contribution, they stay home, and vote suppression is a key part all North American conservative parties’ key election strategies.

So when we consider Ms. Smith, we are inevitably reminded of the aphorism of Ian Fleming, author of the original James Bond novels: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Three times is enemy action.”

This is not, of course, the way Ms. Smith’s change of parties was being presented at yesterday’s joint news conference. Premier Prentice praised her “considerable personal courage.” For her own part, Ms. Smith insisted, “these are the values I fought for through different jobs I’ve had the past 20 years.”

Just the same, given her history, Mr. Prentice would be wise to ensure she is closely supervised, and not to push aside too many loyal Tories aside to make way for Wildrose newcomers in cabinet, lest this adventure, too, should end in tears.

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  1. This is a good thing. The truth is now public. The Wildrose civil war has ended almost before it started. The social conservatives will now gather into their unelectable rump. And the fiscal conservatives, led by Smith, will sink into the back benches of the PC government, having neither the courage to fight for their convictions, nor the morals to face their electors. They’ll fit in well with the PC party.
    Attention must now be placed on Sherman, Notley, Clark, and their respective parties. It is a sad reflection on them that they are so low in the polls. That they can’t do any better even after the horrible Redford regime, Prentice’s shaky start, and the Official Opposition implosion, is very surprising. These small parties are all we have left. They must look at the entirety of their platforms and decide whether to continue butting their heads against a wall or to embrace one another and form a realistic government-in-waiting.

    1. I agree with Chris that the three centre parties–there are no left-wing parties in the legislature though the NDP has the image of a left-wing party despite all its efforts to shake that image off, including running on a platform to the right of the Liberals in 2012–need to “embrace one another and form a realistic government-in-waiting.” But I don’t agree that Danielle Smith, whatever her many character faults, acted solely out of self-interest. The crossing of 11 Wild Rosies in the last short while DOES serve the purposes for which the oil industry took over the Wild Rose party from its nutcase founders and put Danielle Smith in charge. From the beginning of the Smith period in charge of Wildrose, the party has been clear that its intention is to shrink the public sector to a nullity. They want to increase the already strong presence of private industry in health and education, and they want to insure that taxation that benefits the rich, both corporate and individual, is made permanent. Most Tories have the same goals but they are sometimes led astray by pressures from civil society organizations, if not the ineffective, tiny Liberal and NDP caucuses that share those views. Now, the right-wing of the Tory party, led by the pseudo-progressive Jim Prentice–who differs from Ralph Klein not in policy terms but in his ability to project an image of a pragmatic and suave politician–has been reinforced by the adhesion of most of Wildrose. If they bring their party members with them, the PC party in Alberta may as well follow the federal party in not having Progressive in their title. We are headed for another period of Klein-type cuts, possibly more vicious than in the Klein period. It will be blamed on the temporarily low price of oil. Alberta is certainly the anti-Norway. The way to become like Norway is for the centre parties to do what the centre-left in Norway did early this century and to form an electoral coalition. They didn’t want to do it: a broad campaign called the Campaign for the Welfare State forced them to do so.

  2. First, please allow me to state that Rob Anderson is no Winston Churchill.

    There are two problems with this defection:

    One, this involves the leader of the party (it’s even worse given that she was the Leader of the Official Opposition). Danielle Smith was still attacking Jim Prentice’s PCs as of the October by-elections. What surprises me is that, given the attacks on the PCs by the WRP led by Smith, this caucus is still willing to accept her. I want to know what the PC membership (not MLAs) has to say about this.

    Two, joining the governing party should be view in a very negative light, because it’s simply trading principle for power.

  3. Smith scabbed for the Calgary Herald – enough said!

    As for Prentice, he accepted her into his caucus when he had no obligation to do so. He knew how upsetting that would be to tens of thousands of Alberta voters of all political stripes – enough said!

    I shudder to think what the next budget will look like in March. My guess is public service pensions are at the top of their hit list. Those funds are to republican tea-bagger politicians what crack is to addicts.

  4. Now the authoritian single party state of Alberta is back to being honest about its nature – a variety of a Calvinist theocracy ramming their anti-cooperative neo-liberal economic religion down our throats.

    Too bad they don’t have a National Energy Program to blame for low oil prices, but as Ms. Smith has demonstrated, it is all too easy to con too many Albertans.

    1. No doubt their base will blame low oil prices on the Liberals/Trudeau anyway. Have a look at the letter writers in the editorial pages of the National Post our your local Sun newspaper – these are not rational thinkers.

      1. You are right, I attended some public meetings today and was told we could not build oil refineries because of Trudeau and the NEP and that we could not have the $980 billion or so Norway has saved because of transfer payments to Quebec. I was also told that Nova Scotia had banned fracking so they could go on being a have-not province. This is part of the Party line now being spread in suburban and rural central Alberta.

        Reminded me why I prefer staying at home.

  5. I wish I had read this before I tweeted out what I had believed was an original thought; that being that past behaviour is a pretty fair indicator of future behaviour. Picket lines, the Legislature floor, what’s next? Be wary Alberta.

  6. Politicians without principles? Politicians placing personal power and position above all else. Even my unicorn recognizes these as stereotypical myths.

    Remember these people are in this because of the high regard they all have for public service. As long as it is service in the same sense that a bull services a herd of cows.

  7. @chris, the media and columnists are to be single handedly blamed for the low popularity against the Liberals and NDP. They control all information to the masses and create the self fulfilling prophesies to decide who should be liked and who should be hated. A lie told a thousand times becomes true. I remember when Raj crossed the floor. The media went on a rampage ever since to damage him and the Liberal brand and promote the NDs as a counter weight to kill the center to continue pc largesse. The media is to blame for our lopsided democracy they have utterly failed in bringing balance to our society.

  8. Danielle Smith has a long history of supporting right to work legislation, which gives individuals the democratic choice of whether or not to belong to a union. Her defection is a victory for freedom, liberty, workers rights, and taxpayers. It is a mortal blow to big union bosses and their greedy executives.

    1. Brian: You should acquaint yourself with Alberta labour legislation. Workers have an illusory right to join unions. If the scabbing Ms. Smith has her way even that supposed right will vanish.

    2. Hey Troll,

      Workers already have the right to join unions or not. The process is called a union certification vote and it is monitored by the Alberta Labour Department. Get your fact right.

      If anything Smith has demonstrated that she does not respect or believe in democracy. The constituents in her riding did not vote for a PC representative. All Albertans should call for “Right to be Represented by those we Elect” legislation.

      It’s not unions we should be concerned about – it’s sleazy politicians like these.

    3. Right – all of this province’s problems are the fault of unions and their greedy bosses. Seemingly intractable problems like the 40 hours work week, overtime, vacations, occupational health and safety legislation, child labour laws, minimum wage laws – oh the list of problems caused by unions just goes on and on.

  9. It is apropos that Debutante Danielle and Jumbo Jimbo frame the portrait of the Queen. Cause we’all got a new national anthem now. I think the Queen’s eyes are covered with bitumen.

  10. It seems like yesterday when everyone was predicting the end of the Tory dynasty. Prentice was only going to be on board long enough to go down with the ship. Nobody counted on Prentice’s wizard-like powers.

  11. I lack insider knowledge but I do have an active imagination:
    The Harper Conservatives supported the WRP did they not? Is it possible Danielle Smith was taking orders &/or advice from Harper all along??

  12. Well folks, let this be a lesson to everyone – you vote for a denizen of the Fraser Institute and you get naked self-interest and its most debased. I’m sure her fellow-travellers see this as just another form of homo economicus looking after her interests, the invisible hand (the one that conservatives love more than god) and all that.

  13. First of all, we have stop acting like losers here. We are the problem, we have to stop attributing such god loke powers on the tories or any new leader. If it was a cat or a dog instead of Prentice or Mandel, it would have been elected, yes it would have. Political apathy favors the incumbent party. Secondly Jim while smart and intelligent and impressive had to do f. All to win. Everything was already setup for him, he never debated anybody and the PCs were depserately looking for a messiah to bestow unearthly powers, not to mention the media that keeps fueling this. Loser parties keep reaching a psychological limit and creating a self fulfilling prophecy. The entire establishment big oil, big energy and businesses would have all donated fully to keep the PC show in power for their own policies and own means, even if it meant putting a cat or dog on the ballot, it would have won, yes it would have. We as the masses have to move away from entrenching thinking and call out the PC party supporters and those who run for what they really are, their self serving intentions and their continuance of staus quo and power at any cost. Jim Prentice merely had to walk in and the whole house was built for him already, with keys and a brandnew car in the garage waiting for him, he didnt have to work nor pay for any of it. The cult of media fueled personality and perceptions played a huge role in his instant rise. Prentice talks little and has very little of substance to say. In fact he has yet to joust or debate with any MLAs publically and I personally think he is overrated and intimidated to debate. Its time people moved away from being dazzled by such misplaced perceptions. And focus on improving democracy. PC voters would have put a cat or dog in power because they are brand loyal. Stop giving Prentice so much creedence, he does not deserve it. Albertans are drunk on oil and have to sober up just a little and discern and think.

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