Wildrose caucus meeting over merger with Alberta Conservatives

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith met with her caucus to discuss uniting with Premier Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives.

'Entire caucus is debating whether the whole caucus will cross,' ex-Wildrose MLA says

'As I've said in the past, I welcome all conservatives as part of this government,' said Alberta Premier Jim Prentice. 2:20

The executive of the Wildrose party is holding a teleconference Tuesday night after Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith met with her caucus to discuss uniting with Premier Jim Prentice's Progressive Conservatives. 

David Gray, the party's vice-president of communications, said caucus members were meeting at 1 p.m. to discuss an offer from the PCs to merge with the party.

Former Wildrose MLA Joe Anglin said he expects that of the 14 members of the caucus "seven to nine" will be crossing.

But Jeff Callaway, the vice-president of fundraising for the Wildrose, says four of the party's MLAs are expected to cross the floor — including Smith.

The other names include Rob Anderson, Jason Hale and Bruce McAllister. Callaway says he is disappointed but feels the party can still be effective opposition in the Alberta legislature.

Wildrose MLA Drew Barnes said he will not be among any caucus members who cross the floor.

"I myself am not interested," he said. "I am committed to staying as a Wildrose MLA."   

Wildrose MLAs Shane Saskiw and Rick Strankman have also stated they are sticking with the party. 

Premier Jim Prentice had little to say about a potential merger after an appearance at a breakfast event in Edmonton Tuesday morning. (CBC )
Prentice refused to answer questions on any potential floor crossings Tuesday morning saying, "These matters are dealt with at our caucus and certainly we'll deal with it tomorrow."

Cory Morgan, a founding member of the Wildrose Party, has heard that house leader Anderson, a former Tory who crossed to the Wildrose in 2010, brought the idea to caucus. 

Morgan is angry that the party membership hasn't been consulted. 

"We're all in wait-and-see mode," he said. "We as members are still obviously being kept in the dark on something this critical. We haven't been consulted. As a member and supporter, I'm furious and hurt."

As for Prentice, Morgan called him a "gifted, Machiavellian political strategist."

"He's found every way to undercut the party and the opposition and he's done a very masterful job in slicing it up," he said.

Two Wildrose members of the legislative assembly quit to join Prentice three weeks ago.

Kerry Towle, the MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake, and Ian Donovan, the member for Little Bow, said they had grown disillusioned with the Wildrose and liked the direction of the province under Prentice.

Anglin quit in early November ahead of a caucus vote to oust him for, among other things, secretly taping caucus meetings. Anglin has denied this and Smith has never provided evidence.

The three departures left the Wildrose with 14 members compared with 63 for the Tories.

The party is rural based, particularly in the south, with just two MLAs in Calgary and none in Edmonton.

Former party leader Paul Hinman says he is disappointed, but not surprised, with the merger talks given the low party morale lately. But he doesn't believe the party membership will follow the MLAs who cross the floor.

"We don't need to merge. Anybody that wants to go join the PC party is free to do that," said Hinman.

Party dropping in polls

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley slammed the PCs for betraying Albertans by getting elected on a progressive, urban agenda and then shifting right under a new leader. 

“Prentice has been attempting to govern on a Wildrose agenda," she said. "So be it. But that is not what they told Albertans they were running on.”

Notley said that political opportunism is behind the move. 

“I think that on both sides that it is primarily about a bunch of folks that want to keep their jobs," she said. 

A merger could mean the beginning of the end for the Wildrose, a right-centre party that gained strength and popularity against the centrist former Tory premier Alison Redford but has been struggling to find its identity against the like-minded Prentice.

The Wildrose has met hard times after it lost four byelections to Prentice on Oct. 27.

Popularity falling

The party has been dropping in popular opinion polls and Smith has criticized the mainstream media for fostering a narrative of the Wildrose as an angry and divisive party.

Last month, the party was sharply criticized for refusing to adopt into policy a resolution it passed last year to pledge its support for equal rights for all minority groups, including gays.

The policy refusal reignited accusations from the 2012 election campaign that the party was intolerant and anti-gay.

Social media pundits speculated late into the night Monday on possible Wildrose defections.

Saskiw, delivered the following message on Facebook: "I am committed to fighting for the constituents of Lac La Biche-St. Paul-Two Hills and to advocate for our priorities and for the needs of our communities. There is a rumour that I will be crossing the floor tomorrow. That rumour is false.

"I will continue to represent my constituents and to stand up for the principles and values on which I was elected."

Duane Bratt, a political analyst at Mount Royal University in Calgary, said he found the rumours of a merger "really bizarre."

"They've been the most powerful Opposition we've ever seen in this province," he said. 

"Many of the policies that Prentice brought in, he simply adopted what Wildrose has been saying. But given the fiscal downturn in this province, I would think that would help the Wildrose Party, because they're strongest on fiscal issues. I think this would have given them a lifeline after a really disastrous fall."

Wildrose 'a very effective opposition party': analyst

If the rumours are true, Bratt was asked, what would be the party's motivation for a merger?

"If you can't beat 'em, join 'em? I've said all along that it was tough for Wildrose to criticize Jim Prentice because it wouldn't take too much of your imagination to imagine him leading the Wildrose Party. He's a man who could fit in either camp.

"I don't know what's driving this, whether it's that just 'we lost so badly' and an outreach offer from Jim Prentice, if it's true he's provided a letter of offer for them to come over."

But he said if a merger were to take place, it might not mean the political end for some members of the Wildrose, including Smith.

"You put party allegiances to the side, and if you're putting forward a cabinet of talented people, there's still some talented people on the Wildrose side. Is it a unity cabinet?"

Bratt said that, in one way, a merger would be a sad day for democracy.

"You can say what you want about Wildrose, they have been a very effective opposition party," he said.

"We've actually had a competitive political situation in this province for several years. If that merger occurs, you're not going to see that sort of thing happen anymore."

With files from The Canadian Press


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