Momentum is everything in politics. The Wildrose Alliance Party had it at the start of January. For the moment, the Progressive Conservative government of Premier Ed Stelmach has it.
Having to get your communications house publicly in order and reverse course on hugely unpopular policy choices may not be the kind of momentum most governments prefer, but it beats standing still and taking fatal potshots.
With the Alberta Legislature about to get back to business – however briefly – with a Throne Speech Feb. 4 and the government hoping to maintain its momentum with its Budget Speech on Feb. 9, you can count on the Wildrose Alliance to make some quick moves to try to throw Mr. Stelmach off his game.
Since the Alliance has an able leader and savvy behind-the-scenes political advisors from Reform Party/unprogressive Conservative circles who are desperately bored with Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s necessarily cautious approach on the federal scene, we can expect some interesting strategies as they try to regain an ideological sandbox in which to play.
So how will the Alliance try to recover its momentum?
With more floor crossers, of course, but not just yet.
For one thing, the party obviously needs to leave its turncoats in place within the Conservative caucus until the government has briefed its MLAs on its financial plans and presented its Budget Speech on Feb. 9. That leaves the Alliance in a position to get the information it needs to make the most effective possible response to the budget.
If Mr. Stelmach and his advisors really had their wits about them, they’d brown-envelope some budget hints over to the New Democrats – who unlike the Alliance will pose no serious threat come election day – and let them steal the Wildrose thunder on reaction to the budget.
But that kind of subtlety is too deep for Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle, and so the details of the government’s financial plans after Feb. 9 will probably remain buttoned up tightly – which suits the Wildrose turncoats as much as it suits their erstwhile Conservative colleagues.
So the first Wildrose move will be a forceful response to the budget, made more effective by the fact the party will know in advance the details as well as the government strategies for selling them.
Next on the Wildrose agenda will be the demand that, with a three-member caucus in the Legislature, they be given party status and a generous “leader’s allowance,” the same deal the government gives the two-member New Democrat caucus.
This is a smart play, if pretty obvious. Under the rules of the House, a party really needs four members to qualify for official status and the leader’s allowance – which is enough to pay three or four researchers for a year.
Under Ralph Klein, however, the Conservatives habitually gave it to the NDP anyway, even when they fell below the four-member quota, the better to assist them in taking votes from the Liberals on election day. Mr. Stelmach has continued that practice.
Now, with a three-member Wildrose caucus in the House, a strategic edge to the government looks like a strategic liability. The Alliance is bound to demand the same treatment as the NDP and will kick up a huge fuss about the alleged injustice of the Conservative refusal to fund its apparent chief rival. This is a win-win for the Alliance, of course. They win if they get the money. They win if they don’t. As a bonus, they make the New Democrats squirm.
The Alliance could qualify for party status any time they like, of course, by calling over some more of their Tory traitors – but why do that when they can generate more heat and light just by crying unfair?
For its part, regardless of the size to which the Wildrose caucus grows, Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives will return to the Ralph Klein playbook for a response. They’ll argue that since the Alliance’s leader isn’t in the House, there will be no leader’s allowance, just as Mr. Klein did to Liberal leader and sometime Tory Nancy MacBeth in days of yore.
This makes Wildrose leader Danielle Smith’s decision not to run in the Calgary-Glenmore by-election last September more obviously the blunder it was. Certainly Mr. Stelmach’s Tories are unlikely to give her another chance to get into the House until the next general election.
The Wildrose response to that, naturally, will be to play it for all its worth, then march their next batch of floor crossers over to the opposition benches when the furor has finally started to die down. That will generate another huge bout of publicity and keep the momentum on the Wildrose side.
If they have enough turncoats to leave a few more in place, they can unsettle the government even further by working to split Mr. Stelmach’s caucus between Red Tories who see their salvation in moving the party to the centre and the remaining market fundamentalists who want to try to outflank the Alliance on the right.
This strategy will likely give the Alliance the edge in political momentum for a time, possibly several months. Eventually, though, it’s bound to run out of steam, if only because the turncoats in the Tory caucus will have left or been smoked out.
If the Conservatives keep their wits about them, especially if they choose a competent new leader and move back toward the middle as they have on heath policy, they can overcome these next likely Wildrose plays with ease and emerge from the next election with a renewed mandate.
If they lose their cool and let the Alliance rattle them, especially if they stick with Mr. Stelmach’s foolish strategy of moving right to meet the threat from the right, they may drive a few electable Red Tories to Renew Alberta while their core constituency concludes, “What the hell, let’s vote for the real thing!”