PHOTOS: Progressive Conservative premier Jim Prentice and Opposition leader turned PC MLA Danielle Smith pose awkwardly on Dec. 17, 2014, in what was supposed to be a political masterstroke, and could have turned out to have been just that (CBC photo). Below: NDP Premier Rachel Notley, Wildrose Opposition Leader Brian Jean (from and conservative power broker Preston Manning.

It’s December 17. So today is the second anniversary of the epic Alberta floor crossing, the day Wildrose Party leader Danielle Smith was in theory supposed to lead her entire Opposition party caucus across the floor of the House join Premier Jim Prentice’s Progressive Conservative government.

It was a pivotal moment in the train of events that led to the election of Premier Rachel Notley’s NDP Government on May 5, 2015.

It was an audacious plan, hatched in deep secrecy in the weeks before by party leaders and some of their closest advisors. It was orchestrated, so it is now said, by Preston Manning himself, son of Social Credit premier Ernest Manning, former leader of the Reform Party in the House of Commons and, through his eponymous Manning Centre in Calgary, the godfather of the Canadian Right.

Had it worked, it likely would have worked spectacularly. If the entire Opposition caucus had crossed to the governing PCs (metaphorically speaking, as they weren’t actually in the House at the pivotal moment), Mr. Prentice could have called his election whenever he wished and it’s almost certain he would have won. If even one more Wildrose member had crossed, it would have made a significant difference.

Wildrose supporters might not have liked it, but what could they have done other than sit out the election? PC supporters offended by the merger would have found themselves in much the same predicament. The NDP or the Liberals might have picked up a few seats, but so what?

In the event, Ms. Smith led nine of her MLAs to the government caucus. Two more had crossed a few days before, and one had quit to sit as an Independent. But that left five MLAs still in the House affiliated with the Wildrose Opposition.

Even so, at the time, many people, including your blogger, thought Mr. Prentice had pulled off a historic political masterstroke. Had the gambit succeeded, it would have gone down in history that way – breathtakingly cynical but heroically bold.

Instead, it turned out to be an epic failure. Somewhere between the planning and the execution, enough Wildrose MLAs got cold feet, or whatever happened, to let the party, tied with the five-member Liberal caucus, keep its toehold in the House.

The Speaker ruled that the Wildrose would remain the Opposition, with its cash and privileges, because it already had the job.

The history-making desertion to the government benches by most of the Opposition party announced at the Dec. 17 news conference at Edmonton’s Government House shocked and appalled most politically alert Albertans.

Defection Day left a legacy of anger, bitterness and betrayal in its wake. Many citizens, particularly among the Wildrose Party’s most enthusiastic social conservative supporters and donors, were deeply disillusioned.

It didn’t seem to please many rank and file Conservative MLAs in the merged caucus either – seeing as they and the Wildrosers had been at each other’s throats for months. This was especially true because it was rumoured the defectors had been promised coveted cabinet positions. If that was so, however, the promise was never kept. It is also said that a few PC MLAs vowed never to serve in caucus with the former Wildrosers.

Even so, it still likely would have worked if Mr. Prentice had ignored his Ontario-based advisors and waited a year to consolidate his gains. As more than one Wildrose-turned-Tory MLA later said, if they’d only had a year to rebuild in their constituencies, they could have had a fighting chance.

In the event, every one of them was swept away on election night, and many PCs too. Ms. Notley’s New Democrats formed a majority government. When the dust had settled, the completely re-staffed Wildrose Party remained the Official Opposition.

None of this would have happened, of course, without the political talent of Ms. Notley, who almost single-handedly made the NDP seem like a credible alternative for thousands of voters who would not have considered voting that way before Dec. 17, and former Conservative MP Brian Jean, who won the Opposition party’s leadership in March and breathed new life into the party at a moment it appeared to be on life support.

Sadly, we will never know Mr. Prentice’s final take on these events. He died in a tragic air crash in the B.C. Interior on Oct. 13.

Ms. Smith was a remarkably talented politician too, who brought the Wildrose Party to the brink of forming a government … and then led it over the cliff.

Today she is the engaging and popular host of a talk radio program on Calgary’s CHQR.

By chance, she had me on her show yesterday – talking about the ambitious Wildrose MLA Derek Fildebrandt’s break with Mr. Jean, and the unexpected departure of Ms. Notley’s chief of staff, Brian Topp – and I teased her about the anniversary.

“The Great Betrayal,” Ms. Smith replied sardonically, with a bitter chuckle.

So it was seen, and history was made. Certainly, with the benefits of 20/20 hindsight, it was a serious mistake.

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  1. If anything, it began the most interesting time in Alberta politics since Lougheed toppled the Social Credit; and it finally woke Albertans from their generation-long political slumber. I would add that it was a welcome harbinger of things to come on the federal scene as well.

  2. There’s those Ontario advisors again – just visiting from another province – no different than Notley’s advisors past and present. Is there a pattern here, aside from Ab politicans not learning from the mistakes of others?

  3. David, you have raised a couple of fascinating ‘What if’ scenarios: What if one more Wildrose MLA had defected and caused the Wildrose to lose its Official Opposition status? and What if Jim Prentice had waited another year to call the election? Historians, I understand, generally look dismissively at ‘What if’ scenarios, but personally I find them really interesting to ponder.

    Danielle Smith listened to Preston Manning and has gone from Premier in Waiting to talk show host. I wonder if Jason Kenney is headed for a similar fate.

  4. i doubt at that moment WR had much chance to win election even if everyone stay put.
    for most albertans WR seemed as radicalized version of PC but in the rest all was similar, thus just a fight for legislative and executive power between two flanks of the same movement.
    this factor, beginning of economic downfall and humanly impressive performance Ms. Notley, actually did played in favor for NDP. what gonna happen in 2019, hard to say but if not significant changes in right camp, seems not much will change in legislature, beside of grows in number of representatives of right wingers and shrink of amount of NDP.

  5. Now Kenney and Fildebrandt are trying to do what Prentice and Smith could not accomplish. This time, if the merger or whatever it is, happens I think the sense of outrage may be more on the PC side than the Wildrose side. I suppose the numbers of MLA’s that do not go along will not be as crucial because the PC’s are not currently the official opposition.

    It is possible they will live happily ever after, if they actually do merge, but I think more likely it may be a bumpy ride on both sides. There is still some animosity between the PC’s and Wildrose, some differences in policy and style and the PC’s in particular are not accustomed to not being in the drivers seat. They would also need the right leader, someone who can smooth over ruffled feathers and who is not too ideologically rigid. I don’t think they have found this person yet.

    If it wasn’t for her history in the great betrayal, Danielle might be the person to do this.

    1. You may be right about Danielle, David, but I think she herself complained about the social conservative side of the party.

      I am going on a sketchy memory here, and definitely stand to be corrected, but after her 2012 defeat I seem to recall her tactfully mentioning to the media that she wanted a ‘winnable’ platform, presumably one that was not opposed to abortion, did not deny climate change and embraced gay rights.

      Again sketchy memory, but didn’t the Great Floor Crossing occur shortly after a Wildrose policy convention voted down a policy advocated by Ms. Smith that did (at least some of) the above?

      I wonder if Batman and Robin (i.e. Manning and Kenney) have figured out a solution to this problem. Given that anti-abortion groups and fundamental churches are embracing Jason Kenney, I suspect they have not.

      Meanwhile, in the 7 years between Danielle’s 2012 loss and the 2019 election, I expect (hope?) our society will become more liberal. The Calgary flood and Fort McMurray fire has to show climate change deniers what kind of devastation they are risking by ignoring climate change. (Notice I did not claim those disasters were caused by climate change, but are were examples of what climate scientists have been warning us about) I can also only assume more people will embrace protection of gays when they have a loved one come out.

      1. Bob from what I have read there is enough C02 in our atmosphere that if all burning of fossil fuel stopped the earth’s temperature would continue to rise. Now let’s consider that according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration in 2012 world wide C02 emissions were 35.6 billion metric tonnes. They project by 2040 the level of C02 emissions will have reached 43.2 billion metric tonnes, an increase of 7.6 billion metric tonnes. Canada as a whole produces roughly 732 million tonnes. I certainly believe we need to reduce pollution and improve our energy efficiency. Looking at the numbers it appears that our most important place to invest our money is adaptation. No doubt you will consider me a climate change denier. I would say I am being realistic and prudent. Let look at one policy. Shutting down coal fired power in Canada. Saskatchewan has spent over a billion dollars working at perfecting Carbon Capture and storage. I believe China is still planning to build hundreds more coal fired electricity plants. Which would benefit our planet more, shutting down our 6 plants in Alberta early or making those hundreds of new plants in China better for the environment by capturing the C02 emissions. I read that they have found a way to convert C02 into ethanol, couldn’t this be combined with carbon capture? Now maybe none of this is possible but if we all only chose one path it reduces our chance of success. Danielle Smith it turned out made the wrong choice by crossing the floor and that choice ended her political career. Something for us all to think about.

        1. Hi Farmer B,

          There is certainly no denying your numbers about Canada’s minor contribution to global warming. The problem I have is when people use those numbers as a justification to do nothing about climate change. The fact remains that Canada’s per capita production of carbon dioxide is one of the highest in the world, and worse yet is when we live the lifestyle that produces that CO2, we are exemplifying the kind of lifestyle that China and India aspire to.

          If carbon capture proves to be a magic bullet that solves the problem, that would be great, but I haven’t seen any headlines yet that indicate that carbon capture has been perfected so far. Sure, Saskatchewan has spent over a billion dollars working on it – Ed Stelmach tried to spend 2 billion, but there weren’t a lot of takers. Storing that much pressurized gas under underground makes me nervous, and assuming you are a farmer I expect you must be concerned as well, given what fracking has done to groundwater. That said, carbon capture may be part of the solution, (and your ethanol idea sounds even better) but so is the kind of behaviour change that the carbon tax will hopefully bring in. It seems foolish to spend a billion dollars on carbon storage if people continue to warm up their vehicles for 20 minutes on a minus five degree morning.

          I agree that we will need to work at adaptation, but I don’t think it is an either/or proposition. Both would be best.

          1. Yes, we need to adapt to the warming that we have already caused, but as we continue to emit CO2, it will get hotter, with more disruptive weather.

            Thus adaptation is not enough, we also need to cut emissions as much as possible. There is no escaping that fact.

          2. Bob

            You talk of the necessity of behavioural change. The government states that 66% of Albertan’s will have their projected carbon tax payed back to them in the form of a rebate. Therefore if there is no cost to them for the carbon tax why would their behaviour change? Are you only trying to change the behaviour of 34% of Albertan’s? Or are you trying to buy the votes of 66%?

      2. I seem to recall things similar to your sketchy memory. I think the problem at the time was the number and power of social conservatives in the Wildrose party. A merger with the PC’s might help bolster a leader who was not so socially conservative, which I think was one the reasons Danielle took the approach she did. Now this time Kenney seems to be taking a different approach and embracing the social conservatives. Danielle might argue she was ahead of her time, but one could also argue Kenney is now behind the times.

  6. Preston Manning is no longer the purveyor of sound advice. He has tried, and failed, to interfere with Calgary city politics. His advice led to disaster in the Prentice/Smith debacle.

    Mr Manning should come out from behind the shadows and actively participate. Show his colours. So far, pulling the strings from above the stage has not worked.

    The extreme right wing in Alberta don’t seem to get it. The demographics in Alberta have changed forever. The internet has mad communication instantaneous. It has become much more difficult to spread fear, uncertaintly, doubt, and half truths. These are the primary tools of the likes of Jason Kenney, Derek Filldebrandt, and to a certain extent Brian Jean.

    From my perspective, Preston Manning is staining his reputation as a senior statesman. Shame, because he is better than that.

  7. There was much mockery on twitter recently of the Manning Centre’s abysmal 2017 conference lineup. Speakers so far include some from Rebel Media; Doug Ford, etc. Is the Centre running out of money or what?

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