Ms. Smith Leaves Edmonton

Commentary, Municipal Government, Tom Flanagan

The Wildrose supporters who gathered to choose a new leader Saturday night broke into raucous cheers when they heard that former leader Danielle Smith had been defeated for the Conservative nomination in High River. Ms. Smith had made herself infamous in Wildrose circles by crossing the floor to join the governing Conservatives and taking eight Wildrose caucus members with her. There was a famous movie about principled politics titled “Mr. Smith goes to Washington.” Now, we have the sequel: “Ms. Smith leaves Edmonton.”

Partisanship aside, I think most neutral observers will agree it’s a good thing that Ms. Smith lost her nomination bid. Democracy in its contemporary form depends crucially on a contest of governing and opposition parties represented by their leaders. If a head of government can so easily recruit the leader of the opposition, as Premier Jim Prentice did Ms. Smith, then democracy really is in trouble.

Moreover, the Wildrose floor-crossers not only abandoned their principles. It is now clear that they made a colossal error in judgment, as Mr. Prentice lured them across the aisle with bait-and-switch promises. He led them to believe he was going to imitate Ralph Klein’s assault on deficit spending, which led to balanced budgets, lower taxes and booming prosperity; but the recent budget shows that Mr. Prentice had decided to channel Don Getty’s policy of higher taxes, which led only further deficits and economic stagnation.

The budget was an affront to Alberta’s fiscal conservatives. It contained expenditure cuts of less than 1 per cent; 59 increases to taxes and fees; an end to the 10-per-cent flat tax that symbolized the “Alberta Advantage” that Mr. Klein created; and continued deficit spending. The true deficit, the net borrowing requirement, for each of the next three years is projected at $9-billion to $10-billion once capital expenditures are factored in. Alberta’s debts will soon be much larger than the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, which means interest payments will once again become a major factor in the budget.

Mr. Prentice’s budget and Ms. Smith repudiation in High River may change the political landscape in Alberta. Pundits were predicting that Mr. Prentice would call an early election this spring and win an enormous victory after neutering his main opposition. Maybe that will still happen. But if I were Mr. Prentice, I would think hard about the implications of Ms. Smith’s defeat. Voters in High River have shown they don’t like Machiavellian politics. Will Albertans across the province like it any better if he ignores the fixed-election date legislation that his own party brought in just three years ago?

Wildrose has survived, due to the gallant interim leadership of MLA Heather Forsyth; and now the party has a new permanent leader, former Fort McMurray Conservative MP Brian Jean. Mr. Jean is not well known around the province, but he has a compelling personal story (the tragic death of his son during the leadership campaign). He seems to be a realist, having already set the target for Wildrose in the next election as retaining its official opposition status — and there are enough Ralph Klein conservatives in Alberta to make that possible.

The recent budget shows that, as soon as the pressure of opposition is lifted, the Alberta Progressive Conservatives will relapse into fiscal irresponsibility. They forget their promises of expenditure control and fall back into their habitual pattern of spending too much, raising taxes, and borrowing money to pay the bills. I don’t like to think about the next four years if the only opposition is going to come from the Liberals and the New Democrats, who are even more ready than the Progressive Conservatives to keep on spending and borrowing. At this juncture, Alberta needs a principled conservative opposition if it is to avoid going the debt-ridden path of other provinces.

This op ed was originally published by The Globe and Mail on Sunday, March 29, 2015: