Like most Albertans, I watched the recent defection of Danielle Smith and 9 (more) members of her caucus to Jim Prentice’s PCs with a mixture of astonishment and disgust. That it has been a breathtaking example of political opportunism on the part of both is obvious. That Jim Prentice has scored a huge coup by eliminating a mortal threat to his party’s 43 year rule is also clear. That Danielle Smith stands to gain personally by gaining a seat at the cabinet table is almost as clear, provided that Prentice overrules his caucus’s objections and keeps the deal he made with Smith.
What is not so clear is what the more immediate political reasons for this tainted compact are. It was far from inevitable. The former leader of the Wildrose Party apparently suffered a dramatic loss of confidence following the loss of four by-elections in October 2014. But the party itself remained in good shape despite this. While it was polling lower than when Redford was Premier, it’s numbers remained respectable. It had money in the bank, a large membership, and a good staff team at the caucus. Despite Prentice’s whirlwind De-Redfordization program, the situation was redeemable. To do so required a significant re-calibration of political strategy on the part of the Wildrose, and likely another term in opposition. Smith seemed unable to do the former and was unwilling to do the latter.
In a recent post, blogger David Climenhaga shone a light on one dark corner of this sordid pact – the role of Preston Manning. http://albertadiary.ca/2014/12/tory-resistance-to-wildrose-interlopers-dont-believe-it-heres-why-danielle-smith-will-soon-get-her-cabinet-post.html He apparently encouraged the deal, and has publicly defended it. I know Danielle Smith well enough to know that she reveres Manning, and sees him as the eminence grise of Canadian conservatives. If Manning argued that the deal was for the greater good of the conservative movement, I’m sure it would counter many objections for Smith. As federal Reform Party leader, Preston Manning served 13 years in opposition. So with regard to the obvious objective of reuniting conservatives, there was no great rush. Yet rushed this deal certainly was. So what more immediate goals might Manning and Smith be pursuing?
The answer comes from Smith herself. As I’ve watched her round of media interviews defending her decision, my Pepto-Bismol at the ready, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And she did indeed reveal the political basis for the betrayal of her own party. Defending her decision to former ally and fellow Fraser Institute graduate Ezra Levant, she lays it out very clearly: http://www.sunnewsnetwork.ca/video/danielle-smith-faces-off-with-ezra-levant/3953114766001 (at about 8:40, if you can’t stomach the entire interview)
In the era of $50 oil, says Smith, she is “bringing conservatives together to make sure the tough decisions get made”. She adds that this includes “selling them to Albertans”. So there we are. Hold on to your health care, here come the United Conservatives!
Many Albertans are already aware that the failure on the part of successive PC governments to wean the provincial treasury off volatile royalty revenue means another round of budget cuts, affecting mostly low income and middle-class Albertans. What they may not be aware of is that Smith and the Wildrose, like the PCs, have steadfastly refused to consider any changes to the province’s revenues. She wants to keep the flat tax that boosts taxes on the middle class while slashing them for the very rich, keep the huge corporate tax cuts that Klein introduced, and keep some of the lowest royalties in the world. When the price of oil drops, then cuts to social programs like health and education are only alternative she is willing to consider. And she wants to make sure the PCs do not stray from that road.
Prentice himself is on the same path, as his many statements as well as the floor crossing agreement makes clear. But he still has to contend with that pesky PC caucus. You know, the group that fired that other Premier. But Danielle Smith is here to help: “I think he (Prentice) needs some allies in being able to advocate for the changes that need to be made” she said. This defection is more than “uniting conservatives”. It shifts the balance of power in the Tory caucus, and prepares the political ground for a brutal restructuring of public services in Alberta. Jim Prentice it turns out, is Alberta’s first Wildrose Premier.
What is the likely response of this Prentice WildCon government, given the “price trough”? Rather than having the rich pay their fair share, we are likely to see a repeat of legislation to roll back the contracts of public employees. Pension reductions may be back on the table. Layoffs of nurses and teachers are likely as cuts to health and education are made. Tuition fees will probably go up. A sales tax is unlikely, but reintroduction of health care premiums is not. Programs will be cut across the board. Plus lots more – conservatives can be very creative when it comes to screwing average folks during an economic crisis. A very big social fight is coming very soon, perhaps beginning with a snap election.
There is a price to be paid for big tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. And it is paid by ordinary Alberta families, seniors and the poor, whose health care and education, seniors care and social services are cut or priced further out of reach each time the price of oil and/or natural gas drops. We’ve seen this movie before, too many times. It’s time to take a stand against cynical conservative back room deals and the tired “sky is falling” chorus from Tory premiers going back to Don Getty and Ralph Klein. Rachel Notley and Alberta’s NDP offer a principled and fair-minded alternative. Help us fight Tory manipulation and greed. Check us out: http://albertandp.ca