Two legislature members from Alberta's governing Progressive Conservatives are defecting to the Wildrose Alliance, a fledgling political party gathering momentum in the province.
Calgary-Fish Creek MLA Heather Forsyth and Airdrie-Chestermere MLA Rob Anderson announced the move Monday morning at a news conference in Calgary.
"Under Premier [Ed] Stelmach, this government has lost its way. And to watch what has happened is nothing more than wrong, and I simply could not stand by and be silent anymore," Forsyth said in an emotional speech. "This is a decision I have not taken lightly."
Anderson, a relative newcomer to the legislature, described the political process as undemocratic, saying Stelmach, a few loyal cabinet ministers and his trusted advisers run the show.
"Our system of government has become entirely dysfunctional and it's not something I can continue to be a part of," Anderson said. "I believe that defending poor public policy that has been developed by a small band of out-of-touch government appointees and insiders would be a poor investment of my life and taxpayers' money."
Forsyth, a former cabinet minister, has represented her riding since 1993 and has been a member of the Progressive Conservative party for 25 years. Anderson was first elected in 2008.
Tories downplay defections
After the news conference, Conservative party supporters downplayed the defections.
"I don't think this is so much a reflection on Premier Stelmach or on the PC party," said Gene Zwozdesky, minister of Aboriginal Relations. "I think it's more a reflection of the disgruntlement … precipitated by the downturn in the economy and people are looking to point fingers, I think, in some wrong directions."
Tom Olsen, a spokesman for Stelmach, also blamed the recession.
"We have actually dealt with the recession better than most jurisdictions because the premier had the foresight to establish a fund of $17 billion to see us through this kind of situation," Olsen said. "It is difficult economic times and tough decisions have to be made, and teams stay together behind their leader and that is what 68 members of the Stelmach government are doing."
|Seats in Alberta legislature, post-defections|
The premier was on vacation and not available for comment.
Polling shows that a Wildrose candidate could win a seat in the Calgary-Fish Creek riding and are close in Airdrie-Chestermere, said new Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith. But Anderson and Forsyth have no plans to step down and run in byelections.
"I feel reasonably confident that there has already been a shift of voter intention in both of those ridings and that they will feel, in that riding, most comfortable being represented by a true conservative under a true conservative banner," Smith said.
Other Progressive Conservative MLAs who are unhappy with the party's direction may also make the switch, said Paul McLoughlin, a political analyst and publisher of Alberta Scan.
"Is this symptomatic of a larger feeling within the Conservative backbenches?… I would have to say it is," he said.
"As many as 10 backbencher MLAs were talking about it. These are just the first two, in my mind, to surface and to say we can't make it work for our political beliefs in the PC caucus anymore."
But McLoughlin said that even with the loss of two MLAs, Stelmach will still have a "crushing, overwhelming majority" in the legislature.
The defections would leave the Tories with 68 MLAs in the 83-seat legislature, the Liberals with nine, Wildrose with three and the New Democrats with two. There is one Independent, former Tory Guy Boutilier, who was kicked out of caucus last year after he criticized funding delays for a long-term care facility in his constituency.
Boutilier, the MLA for Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo, said Monday it is too soon to say whether he will also be joining Wildrose.
"There's no rush to this — and I want to do certainly what's best for my constituents and for Albertans as a whole," he said.
Recent public opinion polls suggest Stelmach's Conservatives are trailing the Wildrose Alliance, but Stelmach received 77 per cent support in a leadership review vote by party delegates in November.
In a year-end interview last month, Smith, who does not have a seat in the legislature, said Stelmach is responsible for her party's good showing in the polls because of his government's poor decision-making. But she conceded that in the next election — still two years away — her party may have to settle for Official Opposition status, a position currently held by the Alberta Liberals.
The Tories have dominated the Alberta legislature for 38 consecutive years.