Election watchers wonder if some MLAs might consider crossing the floor

CHESTERMERE - With polls showing a significant possibility of a minority government following the April 23 election, speculation has begun on whether some newly elected MLAs might cross the floor to either the Wildrose party or the Progressive Conservatives.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith said Wednesday she's heard some northern Alberta PC candidates have told voters they will switch parties should the Wildrose win the election.

"I can tell you our candidates up there aren't very impressed by that and I don't think voters are going to be impressed by that," said Smith, who did not name the PC candidates in question.

She indicated Tories who try to cross the floor after the election may not find a welcoming environment from a Wildrose government.

"We had the door open for a period of time. We had only three former PC MLAs who ended up coming over (Rob Anderson, Heather Forsyth and Guy Boutilier) and so we closed the door and we moved forward with our terrific team. I'm more focused on getting each one of my Wildrose candidates elected."

PC nominees in northern and central Alberta called the rumours of defections ridiculous.

"You've got to be kidding," Bonnyville-Cold Lake candidate Genia Leskiw said. "There are too many things in the Wildrose party I don't believe in, and when a constituency elects you as a member of a certain party, you should stick with it."

To the south in Battle River-Wainwright, candidate Doug Griffiths said the story sounds like a "trial balloon" being floated by Smith in case she winds up in a minority government.

"With her poll numbers going down, I think maybe she's getting desperate," he said. "I don't know any of my PC colleagues who would consider that. There is strong dislike for the Wildrose tactics."

Still, as Mount Royal University professor Duane Bratt notes, politicians are undoubtedly thinking about what the legislature might look like under a minority government. Such a scenario would put Alberta into uncharted political territory, forcing all MLAs and party leaders to make a number of difficult strategic decisions, he said.

Bratt said in a minority regime, it's more likely that PC members would cross the floor to the Wildrose than the other way around.

"If you are a Wildrose guy and you have just brought the PCs down to a minority situation, you will be playing for time to win the next election," Bratt said.

"But I could see PCs leaving a sinking ship," he said. "As a big-tent party, you have people in the PCs because it's power. So if power starts to shift ..."

But even if some PCs offer to cross the floor, Smith must decide whether it is strategically wise to accept them. Bratt said such decisions have to be handled on a case-by-case basis. One condition would likely be that a Tory must have strong conservative credentials to join Smith's team.

Another opening might occur if a Tory is needed to fill a geographic or regional hole in the Wildrose caucus.

"Let's say we have a Wildrose minority with no MLAs from Edmonton, which is a scenario that could happen," Bratt said. "The Wildrose might be willing to take an Edmonton MLA willing to cross the floor."

Bratt said NDP or Liberal bluster about holding the "balance of power" in a minority government is more fiction that reality. He pointed to recent minority governments at the federal level, in which Prime Minister Stephen Harper used an "ad-hoc relationship" approach that saw him stay in power by seeking support from either the Liberals or NDP on different issues.

"If you look at those governments, who would you say was the more powerful leader, Stephen Harper or Jack Layton?" Bratt said. "It wasn't Jack Layton."

In Alberta, the same sort of fate could await NDP Leader Brian Mason or Liberal Leader Raj Sherman, he said. As for a PC opposition in a minority, they, too, would be limited in what they could do.

"You'd get these sort of ultimatums, with the Wildrose daring the Conservatives to go to the polls again when they don't have a leader," said Bratt, suggesting that current PC leader Alison Redford would likely resign if her party loses power.

He said the "ad-hoc relationship" Harper used is the most common form of minority government in Canada, and the one Smith has indicated she will use if elected as a minority premier.

As an alternative, two or more parties could consider forming a fixed coalition, which hasn't happened in Canada since the First World War, Bratt said.

Another possibility would be a formal agreement between a senior and junior party, in which the junior partner does not sit in cabinet but agrees to support the other party on all confidence motions for a set period of time.

A fourth option involves a "loose alliance" in which there is no written agreement but a ruling party could count on backing from an opposition party in exchange for movement on some of that party's issues.

Jeff Johnson, the Tory candidate in Athabasca-Sturgeon-Redwater, said no matter what kind of legislature develops after the election, he knows of no PCs planning to join Smith. He said when Smith won the Wildrose leadership in 2009, there were reports that as many as 12 Tory MLAs would join her party.

"No one crossed then. Two eventually did, but right now I can tell you I am in pretty constant contact with my colleagues in the north, and there is no appetite to join the Wildrose."

Edmonton Journal, Fri Apr 20 2012
Byline: Kevin Gerein

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