“Dysfunction” drives two across the floor

Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance seems farther ahead than ever with the defection of two Tory MLAs

It wasn’t merely that the Wildrose Alliance, Alberta’s increasingly popular upstart conservative party, tripled in size today, thanks to the defections of two Progressive Conservative MLAs. It was that those floor-crossings were accompanied by a blistering denunciation of the inner workings of the Ed Stelmach government, delivered by a young, articulate former rising star within the Tory caucus.

Rob Anderson, the MLA for Airdrie-Chestermere, who left the Tories today along with fellow Calgarian Heather Forsyth, delivered the attack as part of a press conference this morning in Calgary, where the Wildrose Alliance still finds most of its support.

First elected in 2008, Anderson called the Stelmach Tories “dysfunctional” and described an atmosphere within the Tory caucus of vindictiveness, intimidation and cronyism.

“Most Albertans will be disappointed to know that politics in our province has evolved into a process that is almost completely undemocratic,” he said, referring to a written statement. “Not only are there rarely free votes in the legislature, there are very few free votes in caucus. Virtually all legislation is created and developed by various unelected government appointees, with direction from the premier and a small cadre of ministers whose distinguishing attribute is unconditional allegiance to their leader.”

The defections are further evidence the Wildrose Alliance, which under the leadership of Danielle Smith recently surpassed the governing Tories in the polls, is more than just an Alberta novelty act. The pair of former Tories join deputy leader Paul Hinman in the legislature, catapulting the party ahead of the NDP, which has two seats, and virtually assuring it official party status.

Anderson most recently made news when, late last year, he joined a band of young conservative Tories to form the so-called Fiscal Four, a group dedicated to keeping the government on the fiscal straight and narrow.

Stelmach and his team were, Anderson went on to say, unimpressed with the initiative. “The premier and his inner circle consider it a serious offence if elected MLAs speak up publicly for their constituents,” he said. “Even behind closed doors, MLAs who contradict the chief of staff, the premier or a prominent minister are often derided, shouted down and threatened with having their political careers limited in some fashion”

Anderson called the response from the premier’s office to the Fiscal Four the last straw in his decision to cross the floor. He reserved special criticism for the premier’s chief of staff, Ron Glen. “Final government decisions are highly influenced by the premier’s chief of staff,” he said. “This unelected government appointee is now paid more than the premier, nearly $400,000 a year, and has effectively been given the power to override the views of the elected caucus.”

Forsyth, who ran into trouble with the Stelmach Tories during the 2008 election for suggesting that the premier’s lack of popularity in Calgary might hinder her from winning her seat, called the decision to leave the party “a difficult and at times heart-wrenching process.”

A Tory MLA since former premier Ralph Klein first took government in 1993, Forsyth recalled the Tories under Klein as “fun” and effective, and lamented the agenda of the old regime.

Both Forsyth and Anderson cited the Stelmach government’s controversial modification to energy royalty and its managing of the recession as policy disagreements that drove them from the fold.

Forsyth said she expects half of her riding association executive to follow her to her new party. Anderson was less specific, but said he made his decision after consulting with members of his executive. He also expressed hope his decision would be embraced by his constituents. “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 of taxpayers’ money,” he said.

But Janice Harrington, VP communications for Anderson’s riding association and present at the press conference, said she and others were not consulted and expressed disappointment over Anderson’s move.

Speaking to reporters, Anderson agreed he had not spoken to Harrington during his deliberations but added: “She’s a good person but she’s a pipeline to the premier’s office.”

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