If anyone enjoys the cut and thrust of partisan debate, it would be two former Wildrose MLAs from Central Alberta, Joe Anglin and Kerry Towle.
Anglin has been regarded as sort of a lone wolf for some time now, so it’s fitting that if he could not sit as a member of the Wildrose Party for which he was first elected, he would sit as an independent.
Towle, on the other hand, is more naturally bent toward the team. The Innisfail-Sylvan Lake MLA a joiner, not a loner. So her defection on Monday to the governing Conservatives carries double importance. Probably more than double.
It takes a huge amount of stress to make a committed partisan switch teams. So I look to the factors behind Monday’s events to help explain why Anglin, Towle and Ian Donovan of the Little Bow riding left their party.
They did not leave the party in disarray. It was that way before they left.
Read what you like into this: on Monday, the Wildrose caucus passed a motion that was defeated by party membership at the party’s annual meeting.
Former Tory— now Wildrose MLA — Rob Anderson said on Monday that caucus would follow the policy they voted on, not what was passed by the party in general at its annual conference.
What does that tell you? It tells me there’s serious a divide between the members the party elected and the people who took out party memberships.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley said that Monday’s defections were “not a good sign of democracy in the province.”
I disagree. I say it’s a very strong sign of a resurgence of democracy in this province. I wish we could have more of this, including (maybe even especially) at the federal level.
Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith had a brief statement for the press and took no questions later. But she mentioned two prominent Conservative MLAs who had earlier crossed the floor to join Wildrose.
She spoke darkly that Donovan and Towle will have to answer for their decision to abandon the party that got them elected. Not so much Heather Forsythe and Rob Anderson, who went the other way. Anglin would remain beneath her radar.
I say it’s a good day for democracy when elected members switch parties. I say it’s a good day when an MLA decides constituents and personal values should govern a member’s voting pattern in the legislature, not party membership.
Both Towle and Smith mentioned that Wildrose is a party of free votes. Smith is balancing denial of the will of party members and the public line on the issue. Towle is balancing an espousal of free votes, while joining a government that is measurably less free in that regard.
Wildrose has only two female members left of its 14 remaining MLAs, and Forsythe has already said she will not run again.
Wildrose membership watered down a policy statement on protecting the equality of minority groups, particularly gay, lesbian and transgendered people. Elected MLAs, who know their constituents and the facts on the ground better than the party card-holders, actively rejected their will.
Smith says she won’t be leading the party if it doesn’t win the next election. Is that confidence in the party’s promise or an ability to read writing on the wall that party members cannot seem to decipher?
In my version of democracy, any group can create a political party with a declared set of values and seek candidates who would reflect those values. But once elected, the members are beholden first to their voters, not the party.
I’m not about to suggest that any of the five MLAs who crossed the floor since the last election (Anderson, Forsythe, Anglin, Donovan and Towle) did so to gain perks or score points. I have no basis to believe that was their motivation.
Rather, I believe such decisions can show integrity to personal values. We should have more of this, both federally and provincially.
The more that party leaders (and party membership) understand that elected members are not the property of their party whips, the better.
For their part, the party leaders have not gotten the memo. But I sense a sea change among an electorate that is tired of being tuned out between elections.
We want more voter participation in elections, but why bother if elected members are simply forced to a party line rather than what people want?
Notley was a bit too cynical Monday, describing the forces that brought Towle and Donovan to the Conservatives. She said phase one of the Tory plan is “break your promises.” Phase two, she said, is to “become Wildrose.”
When even the Wildrose leader and her MLAs don’t want what the Wildrose Party membership says they should want — and a couple left the party because of it — I don’t think the Tories will want to be Wildrose.
When you think about it, as things stand now, neither will Alberta voters.
Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at readersadvocate.blogspot.ca or email firstname.lastname@example.org.