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Barry Morishita, who recently became treasurer of the local Progressive Conservative riding association, says under the premiers who preceded Jim Prentice, there was a growing sense among many Conservatives that “they don’t listen any more.”

Roy MacGregor/The Globe and Mail

Memories out here are even longer than the sightlines.

From this small community that lies on the TransCanada Highway between Medicine Hat and Calgary, they can see clearly all the way back to April 20, 1977 – the day Jack Horner sold his soul to the devil.

"Cactus Jack" Horner, Progressive Conservative member of Parliament from the nearby federal riding of Crowfoot, crossed the floor of the House of Commons to sit as a Liberal. He left the caucus of Joe Clark, whom the rancher dismissed as a "sheep herder," to join the cabinet of Pierre Trudeau, serving as minister of industry, trade and commerce.

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"By all accounts, he was a pretty decent minister," says Barry Morishita, a Brooks councillor and member of the Strathmore-Brooks Progressive Conservative Riding Association, "but he got destroyed when people went to the polls."

Two years later, Mr. Clark defeated Mr. Trudeau in the 1979 election. Mr. Horner, who had taken 75 per cent of the vote five years earlier as a Tory, collapsed to less than 20 per cent as a Liberal, finishing more than 20,000 votes behind PC candidate Arnold Malone.

You just don't cross people in Alberta.

One month ago, Jason Hale, the member of the Legislative Assembly for Strathmore-Brooks, was among the eight Wildrose Party MLAs, including party leader Danielle Smith, who crossed the floor to join new provincial Premier Jim Prentice and his governing Progressive Conservatives.

"It can't even be called 'crossing the floor,'" Mr. Hale told the local Chronicle of the mass-transit move by Wildrose on Dec. 16.

In Mr. Hale's interpretation, they were going to a Premier who agreed with so many of their policies and principles that now they'd be "fighting for the same thing." In his opinion, it only made sense: "It's the best thing for the province and it's the best thing for the constituency. I truly believe that."

Well, hold on a moment, sir – there are a great many people back home in the riding not buying that. A couple of days around Brooks and you'll hear everything from "people are pissed off" to "it's the rats leaving the ship."

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One crosses a political floor at one's peril in Canada. Apart from 1917, when the Conscription Crisis turned the House of Commons into a game of musical chairs for that year's election, it doesn't happen all that often and certainly not all that successfully.

In Sudbury, floor-crossing is the issue that won't go away in an Ontario provincial by-election that has been called for Feb. 5. The Liberal government's star candidate is Glenn Thibeault, who represented the city in Ottawa for the past six years – but as an NDP. Mr. Thibeault, who was enormously popular as an MP, was brought in at the expense of Andrew Olivier, a long-time party loyalist who had carried the Liberal banner in June and wished to run again. Not a chance, he was told.

One recent poll says that Mr. Thibeault has by far the best name recognition, but is running slightly behind New Democrat candidate Suzanne Shawbonquit. He also has a lower approval rating than Mr. Olivier, who is running as an independent and hasn't a prayer of winning.

In Brooks, there is deep resentment among both Wildrose and Progressive Conservatives that this was all done in secret and, from what they can gather, few if any of the floorwalkers elected to talk it over with their constituency people back home.

"Not to make even one call to your own people," says Mr. Morishita, a small-business owner who recently became treasurer of the local PC riding association. "The only choice we're left with is to look at it this way: You want to survive politically because you know you're going to get thrashed come the election."

Mr. Morishita counts himself a friend of Mr. Hale – "a good guy" – but he cannot buy the rationalization offered. "They always say: 'I'm crossing the floor to make it better for the constituency,'" he says. "But that underscores all that we think is awful about politics – that it is about the machine, not the people."

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Mr. Morishita understands where Wildrose came from and why it had success. "We're not really rednecks in the traditional sense," he says. "But people here are firmly rooted on the land. We believe in hard work and living within your means. You find a way to do it or you cut the services, simple as that. The Conservatives forgot this and Wildrose stood up for us."

Under the premiers who preceded Mr. Prentice, Mr. Morishita says there was a growing sense among many Conservatives that "they don't listen any more." Wildrose tapped into a disconnect and a discontent that saw 440,000 Albertans, 34.3 per cent of voters, desert the ruling party for the upstarts.

More than a few eyes rolled when Mr. Hale told the local news that "anybody who belongs to the Wildrose needs to be very proud of what we've done. We've done an excellent job of holding the government to account. Now, with the new premier and his vision, we can do more good for the province helping implement good policy rather than sitting on the other side, trying to find fault."

Yet, with a provincial election looming, and the possibility of once again no opposition, who will hold the government to account in a time of collapsing oil revenue and the possibility of – shock of shock to many Albertans – a provincial sales tax?

"People just throw up their hands," Mr. Morishita says. "They want to know, 'Why did I bother showing up to vote and saying I wanted a Wildrose MLA?'"

Instead of agreeing in secret to cross the floor, he and others feel, the MLAs should have done the honourable thing that Jack Horner failed to do 38 years ago – resign and then run again under your new political banner.

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They are grateful that Mr. Prentice has given his word to riding associations such as Strathmore-Brooks that, for the upcoming provincial election, the nomination process will proceed as usual, with open nominations.

"I can't imagine a single one of them will get a free ride," Mr. Morishita says.

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