Monday, December 22, 2014

The strange case of the Alberta Wildrose Party

Alberta, a province in the West of Canada, has traditionally had one of the most stable and uncompetitive political environments in the world. However, recently Alberta's political environment has become oddly unstable, and a series of events has taken place involving a new political party known as Wildrose that have surprised many. The party has split, and the majority of members have left to join the government.

The Singapore of the west

Alberta is the fourth most populated province in Canada, and is the second richest per capita. Its large oil reserves have kept them wealthy, and this wealth has fathered a sense of political confidence and complacency.

Albertans have never elected a party that they previously threw out of power. Government has been formed by the Liberal Party, the United Farmers Party (progressivism, social democracy), the Social Credit Party (social conservatism), and the Progressive Conservative Party (also conservative). Governments have also been long-term. No Albertan government has served for less than 14 years in office. 

The United Farmers Party was elected in 1921, and, rather oddly for a progressive party in that era, repealed Prohibition, which had been introduced by the previous Liberal government. They did introduce mandatory sterilisation for the disabled, which seems rather unsettling. However, the United Farmers coped poorly with the Great Depression, and were wiped off the map in 1935 and replaced with the Social Credit Party, led by William Aberhart. 

Social Credit introduced some good ideas, some bad ideas, and some utterly crackpot ideas under Aberhart. One of these ideas was the Accurate News Act, which would have required all Albertan newspapers to print "corrections" of stories that Social Credit members of parliament did not agree with. This bill was knocked back by State Governor John Bowen, in one of the rare cases of state Governors using their fearsome "reserve powers". 

Aberhart died in 1943, and was replaced by the more moderate Ernest Manning. Manning dumped Social Credit as an ideology, and introduced a more mainstream conservative ideology. He led his party to seven consecutive electoral victories, and rarely faced an opposition  of more than 10. Alberta had too few opposition MPs for an opposition leader from 1959 to 1963.

In 1971, the Social Credit Party, under the leadership of Manning successor Harry Strom, was thrown out of office. They lost to Peter Lougheed of the Progressive Conservative Party (PC).  Social Credit won 25 seats in the 75 member Parliament, while the PCs won 49 seats and one New Democrat (social democracy) was elected.

Lougheed  liberalised some of Alberta's more repressive laws about social issues, but didn't do much different. Social Credit collapsed, and won only 4 seats in 1975. They spluttered on for a few more years, but finally left parliament in 1982, when the PCs won 75 out of 79 seats. The other four went to 2 independents and 2 New Democrats. 

In 1985, Lougheed retired. He was replaced by the less popular Don Getty, a football player. Under the leadership of Getty. the Progressive Conservatives lost 14 seats in 1985. While they still won 61 out of 83 seats, they faced a more strengthened opposition of 16 New Democrats, 4 Liberals, and 2 members of the Representative Party (a social-credit style party).

Getty was replaced by Ralph Klein, a more popular Progressive Conservative. The 1993 election, Klein's first as leader, was a polarised contest between him and Liberal leader Lawrence Decore, with the New Democrats being wiped out. Klein won 51 out of 83 seats, with the Liberals winning 32.

For the next 18 years, Klein comfortably won election after election. In 2008, Klein's successor Ed Stelmach was elected, winning 72 seats. 

The rise of Wildrose

In 2011, Stelmach resigned as Premier. His unpopularity was growing, but Progressive Conservative support was not flowing to the Liberals or New Democrats. Instead, it was flowing to a new force; the Wildrose Party.

Formed in 2008 as the Wildrose Alliance, the party was a very conservative party that complained that the PCs have moved too far to the left. The party won no seats in 2008, but came very close to retaining the seat of its only MP; Paul Hinman, who had joined the party from the similar Alberta Alliance.

The Progressive Conservatives chose Alison Redford, a moderate within the Progressive Conservatives. Redford's centrist style alienated many within the PCs, and Wildrose began to lead in the polls. The prospect of a government change in Alberta was on the cards; and in Alberta, when governments change, they change for good.

The 2012 Alberta election was the closest contest in years. Wildrose started out with a lead in the polls, but Redford campaigned hard, appealing to Liberal voters scared of a Wildrose government to vote for her to stop Wildrose. Embarrassing gaffes by Wildrose candidates, like Alan Hunsburger, an Edmonton candidate, who wrote a ranting blog post claiming that homosexuals would "suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell". This did not go down well, as did leader Danielle Smith's refusal to disendorse Hunsburger.

In the end, Redford won. Her Progressive Conservatives won 61 seats in the 87 member parliament, a loss of 11 seats from 2008. Wildrose won 17 seats off 35% of the vote, while the Liberals suffered a massive drop in terms of votes, falling from 26% in 2008 to just 10%. The Liberals appear to have been a victim of tactical voting; Liberals may have voted PC to stop Wildrose. However, they managed to win 5 seats, down from 8 in 2008. The New Democrats won 10% and 4 seats.

However, Redford's support didn't improve after 2012. Cuts to higher education, poor relations with unions, and expenses scandals caused dramatic drops in both support for Redford and support for her party. Redford's approval rating dipped below 20%, and Canadian election prediction blog ThreeHundredEight predicted that under some poll results, the PCs would win 9 seats under Redford's leadership.

With the knives out, on March 19, Redford quit. She was replaced temporarily by Dave Hancock and permenantly by Jim Prentice, a former federal environment and industry minister.  Prentice was a far more popular figure than Redford, and under his leadership a number of controversial initiatives were terminated in an effort to placate unions. Prentice's (relatively) clean record in federal government gave him a better image than Redford

So, what did this mean for Wildrose? Well, it was a bit of a shake up. The party that gained strength off the claimed centrism of Stelmach and Redford had some trouble against someone who at least appeared to be a populist conservative in their mould.

On November 2, Wildrose MP Joe Anglin left the caucus. Smith had threatened to expel Anglin from the Wildrose caucus due to criticism of party advisors, and he was already disendorsed in advance of the next election. It seems that Anglin has left because of dissatisfaction with Wildrose, rather than any attraction towards the PCs, as he became an independent.

On the 24th of the same month, another two Wildrose members left. However, this time they joined the PC caucus. Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan quit, claiming that the party was pressuring them to vote in a certain way against their interests, and that they supported Prentice and felt opposition to him was worthless.

However, it took until December for the proverbial poop to hit the fan. Rumours started flying that Wildrose and the PCs would merge, or that there would be a mass floor-crossing. On December 17th, it happened. Smith resigned as party leader, and announced that she would leave Wildrose and join the PCs. Eight other members, including the party house leader, followed her, leaving a rather sad rump of five members.

What makes the whole experience even odder (if the majority of MPs leaving an opposition party to join a government party isn't odd enough) is that Smith, as she was heading out the door, wrote a letter to the remaining caucus members asking them to seriously consider merging with the PCs. This is extraordinary; the leader of a political party with the support of 34% of the vote at an election suggesting that the party merge with a party consistently opposed by that leader.
Parties such as Wildrose are already rare in Canada, a nation with a relatively stable three-party system. The New Democrats, Liberals and Conservatives have divided up most power in Canada, and the Greens have small support bases in most provinces. One exception is New Brunswick's Confederation of Regions party, a party opposed to bilingualism and the teaching of French. That party won the position of Official Opposition in 1991, but collapsed due to infighting and won no seats in 1995.

In South Korea, a somewhat similar incident took place. The right-wing Democratic Justice Party merged with two liberal opposition parties to form the Democratic Liberal Party, a right-wing party. This is especially odd given that the two liberal opposition parties were led by figures opposed to South Korea's military dictatorship, a dictatorship supported by many Democratic Justice Party members.

I'm really not aware of any other cases where this has taken place. If anyone is aware of another case, please comment.

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