PHOTOS: Alberta Premier Jim Prentice: not the political genius we were told he was. Below: Former Wildrose House leader Rob Anderson and Wildrose MLA Shayne Saskiw.
Surely the key message of the Wildrose floor-crossing debacle is that no one can feel confident Alberta Premier Jim Prentice will keep his promises.
This potential lack of reliability should concern anyone – be they the premier of another province, the leader of another level of government, citizens seeking to influence government policy, members of the premier’s own caucus, or rank and file voters – who needs or wishes to do business with the Prentice Government.
Promise breaking has been a perennial theme with the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty now led by Mr. Prentice, although the circumstances this time are different from when premier Alison Redford cast aside election promises made in 2011 and 2012 to progressive voters and adopted the neoliberal economic nostrums they had expected from the Wildrose Party.
Mr. Prentice is widely understood to have made serious commitments to the nine members of the Wildrose Opposition who crossed the floor to his caucus on Dec. 17. Observers familiar with the negotiations say that, initially, multiple cabinet posts were promised to former Opposition leader Danielle Smith, Wildrose House leader Rob Anderson and the seven others who defected en masse that day.
It has been widely claimed that they and the other two Wildrose MLAs who crossed the floor a few days earlier were also promised they could run in the next general election in their ridings without facing nomination battles.
Arguably this commitment was a terrible decision on the premier’s part. It failed to pass the sniff test for most voters. It alienated a significant portion of his hitherto obedient caucus. It infuriated his newly appointed cabinet, some members of which feared they would be asked to give up their jobs to make way for Wildrose interlopers. And it enraged the Alberta public far beyond what any of the chefs who cooked up this noxious broth imagined it would.
Between the morning and the evening of Dec. 17, as soon as Mr. Prentice encountered resistance he apparently hadn’t expected from his own caucus and cabinet, it appears the agreement made with the Wildrose defectors went from multiple cabinet posts to two, and from definitely now to maybe later.
Subsequently, the uncontested nominations also appear to have come off the table, and the number of cabinet posts for former Wildorsers may have been reduced to zero. We’ll have to wait and see because, of course, as always with PC governments, voters and taxpayers are the last to know anything.
It’s all very well to say that the premier has executed a masterstroke of destroying his opposition at no cost to himself. After all, Ms. Smith et alia, who now look pathetic and craven to many of their former supporters, could hardly have crossed back to the Wildrose benches when Mr. Prentice’s commitment went south. But in fact the cost is significant. Despite his famously persuasive manner, who can trust the premier now?
So it appears that Mr. Prentice compounded a serious blunder with a second serious blunder. This will likely have little impact on his immediate electoral prospects, but the consequences down the line could be more significant.
Two Wildrose MLAs who played a big role in negotiating the mass defection with the premier’s team are said to have been Airdrie MLA and former Wildrose House leader Rob Anderson and Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills MLA Shayne Saskiw. Yesterday, Mr. Anderson announced he would step out of public life, probably the least damaging and most graceful thing he could do in his present embarrassing circumstances. Mr. Saskiw remains part of the five-member Wildrose caucus while his wife Shannon Stubbs runs for the Conservative Party of Canada in the Lakeland riding.
Ms. Smith herself has no guarantee she can keep her seat in the Highwood riding, where many of her former constituents of both Wildrose and PC streams of conservatism are furious at her conduct. If she switched parties because she feared she would be routed by the Tories and left to be viewed by history as an abject political failure, it’s hard to see how this changes anything, even if Mr. Prentice relents and gives her an insignificant cabinet position.
So what has Mr. Prentice achieved?
On the plus side of the ledger, he has crushed and discredited his principal opposition and created a situation in which Albertans are likely to re-elect his party to another term in office, however reluctantly.
On the negative side, he has divided his own caucus, which until these events was prepared to do pretty well whatever he asked, into Red Tory and fiscal hardliner factions.
He has emboldened the Red Tory group – which is said to number at least 25 MLAs – with the knowledge they can fight back against him and win, just as they did with Ms. Redford. He has likely given the other faction the same idea.
He has created a group of powerful enemies among both former influential Progressive Conservatives and disillusioned Wildrose floor-crossers. Revenge is a dish best served cold, so they will wait a spell before their counterstrike.
Most seriously, he has at best given the impression he is weak and inclined to take the advice of the last person he talked to, at worst that he is untrustworthy and can’t be counted on to keep a commitment.
On balance, Mr. Prentice is in a far weaker position thanks to his own actions than he was at the start of December, when he appeared to be a political colossus astride Alberta.
He has hardly covered himself in glory. From here, he certainly doesn’t look like the political genius we were all told he is.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.