So ... most of the Alberta Wildrose Party is calling it a day ... not from politics but from opposition. Two MLAs defected a short while ago and now it looks like up to seven more are on the move. Speculation is rampant, of course. If seven more MLAs go, this will leave Wildrose with a rump caucus that is still the second largest in the Alberta legislature. They would remain the official opposition, ahead of the Liberals (who hold five seats). The PCs have something like 63 right now, a number that will, of course, increase in the days ahead.
What is one to make of this? From what I've read, there are a number of interpretations. There is the Danielle Smith abandoned the farm theory; in effect that she was bought off (which might have some truth to it). There is the closely aligned PC conspiracy theory: that the Tories worked to do in Wildrose by moving to the right (that is, further to the right!) and torpedoed the opposition in the run up to an election next yer (which might have some truth to it). But, I think there might be other dynamics and implications here that should be explored because this is an event of some sort in Canadian public life.
A couple of years ago, I was lecturing to my intro class on Quebec. In that lecture, I spent some time explaining that Quebec politics might be more "normal" (that is, similar to the Rest of Canada) than most people think. There was, I suggested, nothing particularly unusual about having a provincial political party or two (PQ, CAQ). Other provinces seemed to be going this way or had gone that way in the past. I cited historical examples (United Farmers of Alberta, for instance) and current examples: Saskatchewan Party, Yukon Party, Wildrose and the "poor cousins" in the Maritimes (Atlantic Party in NS and People's Alliance in NB). I might be stubborn but I don't think I'll give up on that thesis right away, since the jury is still out on the other parties (excepting the fringe Maritime parties, which likely won't go anywhere). Does Wildrose's impending collapse, however, throw a wrench in my thesis?
Maybe ... it is possible that we have moved through an era of semi-autonomous provincial political parties and into another era but the implications might be even broader than that. Several points are important/
First, we need to ask why did Wildrose MLAs leave their party? The truth of the matter was that Wildrose never had particularly solid ground in which to grow. It drew strong regionalized support is southern Alberta, but was unable to make a serious dent elsewhere in the province. The weak character of the other political parties (and their similarly regionalized bases of support) meant that, in truth, Wildrose had little chance of forming a government in the near future, if at all. In that instance, those people who are interested in power -- in being on the "in" -- will look around for a party in which they can fulfill their personal objectives. What Wildrose shows us, then, might be something different than what I told my intro class. It might not show us that provincial parties are about to sprout up all over the place but it might tell us something about how difficult it actually is get a third party into government. They are relatively easy to start and we have a slew of them now and have in the past. But, starting a party and getting people elected and then moving to government are altogether different things.
What would be really interesting is a comparative analysis of "third" parties. We might keep third in air quotes here because the Saskatchewan Party and the PQ can hardly be called "third parties" since both have been in government or currently are. Let's call them alternative parties. A comparative analysis might look at the importance of a strong regionalized base of support within a province to ensure MLAs (or MPPs or MNAs) while the party moves toward government. This is one of the problems that the Atlantic Party has. (It has others, to be sure) and the PANB. They really have no place in the province that they "call home," where they know they will be able to elect representatives time after time. Wildrose had this. It was that next step that seemed to cause it problems.
Second, our comparative analysis of alternative parties at the provincial level might also look the space that party seeks to occupy on the political spectrum. What made the Saskatchewan Party and the PQ successful was not just a base of support -- however crucial that is -- but that they occupied a political space that other significant party at that time occupied. The PQ occupied a separatist and social democratic space that was occupied very weakly by small independence parties (RIN, for instance). The SP occupied the right wing of the political spectrum after the collapse of the Saskatchewan PCs. Again, no other party in that space. CAQ in Quebec, again, had a regionalized base of support and occupied a space (conservatism) that no one else had occupied (this has been enough to get it seats but where it goes from here ...?).
Here again, what is going on in the Maritimes might speak to this issue. In NS and NB, the small fringe parties do occupy a space no one else occupies. They are almost Wildrose like in their conservatism despite efforts to appear moderate. The problem they have is that they occupy a space that no one else wants to occupy with them. Hence, my second point requires nuance. One needs to occupy unoccupied space but that space must be some place where voters want to stand as well. Communists, for instance, have long occupied a space no one else does in Canada but they have been remarkably unsuccessful in elections. In the past, parties at the provincial level that were successful seemed to have done the same thing. The UFA and UFO occupied a populist small-town space that was in demand and not occupied by other parties. In Saskatchewan, the same time, the provincial Liberal Party moved into that space and so no equivalent of the UFA developed in that province. Conversely, the CCF occupied the left space in that province successfully. And, one could go on.
Wildrose fits into this picture because their space -- an extreme right wing space -- was re-gobbled up by the PCs. Hence, their defecting MLAs -- rightly -- said that they liked the direction of the current PC government. Why shouldn't they? It was what they campaigned on in the last election. Once the Tories back-tracked on their moderate right-centre perspective that they had been developing and moved to full scale support for carbon energy production and other right wing measures ... the Wildrose was left without a space on the political spectrum.
And ... why would anyone vote for Wildrose if they could get Wildrose-like policies from an experienced government? This is my third point. The PQ and the SP moved into government only after some time in opposition and after they had been able to recruit candidates about whom a reasonable claim to good governmentability could be made. In other words, they could claim -- rightly -- that they could run a province. We might not like how they ran it, but they had the talent on the front benches, as it were, to form a government and administer the complex machinery of the modern state. Wildrose simply could not make this claim. Because it is easy to start political parties in Canada, people do. This does not mean that those parties are ready or fit to govern. Even if I were a right winger ... Wildrose would worry me and I'd likely not support them for precisely this reason. They had not demonstrated that they were -- or, could be -- a government in waiting. Our point three, then, is that successful alternative parties need to have a talent (CAQ in QC had gone out of its way in this regard to try to attract candidates that allow it to make a reasonable claim to being able to govern). An inability to do this ... will not trick the voters, particularly if one is competing for space on the political spectrum.
Fourth, and finally, we need to think voter turnout and how this effects alternative parties. The Wildrose Party -- like all parties in Alberta -- is seriously affected by declining voter turnout and there is no evidence that this is likely to change in the future. I am not entirely certain of the effects of declining voter turnout but I suspect that the effect is complicated. In brief, it is more difficult right now to mobilize people to vote. It can be done, if the right circumstances are met. But, those circumstances are important because otherwise those votes will not translate into seats and the party will wither and die unless staffed by a core of die-hard committed members will to suffer defeat after defeat after defeat because of their commitment to the cause (read NDP in NB).
To sum up, I think there is surely a lot of crass opposition shattering and personal ambition that has gone into the collapse of the Wildrose. Its collapse, however, tells us other things that are important to note for Canadian public life. One commentator -- in the linked newspaper article -- said that this was a sad day for democracy in Alberta. I'm not convinced of that. In fact, the natural working of democracy might bring the natural death of political parties (say, like the Union nationale in QC, UFA and Social Credit in Alberta; Social Credit in BC; farmer-labour in NS, etc.). But, failing democracy -- in the sense evident in declining voter turnout -- might be a serious hindrance to alternative parties in that the constituency that they seek to mobilize will not go to the polls.
The collapse of Wildrose tells us other things, too. Set in a comparative analysis, it tells us important things about why some alternative parties are successful and others are not. As a Green Party member ... this might be a lesson for me to learn.