Opposition leader Danielle Smith's decision to join Alberta's Progressive Conservative government, bringing eight Wildrose MLAs along with her, has prompted the most frequently asked question about Alberta politics: Why is it so weird?
For one answer, we can turn to a classic in Canadian political science. In 1953, C.B. Macpherson published his most famous book, Democracy in Alberta, arguing that Alberta's homogeneous class system and history explain its small number of political parties. Many things have changed since then, but one of the book's arguments remains relevant: Alberta's political culture has always preferred a non-partisan, business government. Business governments are primarily interested in making policy through consensus inside a party, rather than having it emerge from a fight between rivals. In other words, business governments do not want the Legislative Assembly to be the factory where you see the sausages made, but the supermarket where you buy them in a nicely packaged tray.
Let's try looking at Alberta's history through Mr. Macpherson's eyes: Alberta's disapproval of parties dates back to its first non-partisan elections to a territorial parliament, with parties emerging only when their federal counterparts interloped, forming rival Liberal and Conservative teams. Alberta then became a province, and four consecutive Liberal majorities quickly followed.
Later, the Non-Partisan League was popularizing the idea of business governments throughout western North America. The campaign caught the eye of the United Farmers of Alberta, a non-partisan lobby group that uncomfortably became a political party. It eventually ran in only three-quarters of the ridings in 1921, somehow still winning a comfortable legislative majority. Its first cabinet was appropriately non-traditional: leaderless during the campaign, it named a non-MLA as premier, and one cabinet minister was from the opposition.
Social Credit's sweeping 1935 victory is usually explained in the context of the Great Depression or as a populist movement led by a charismatic evangelical radio host, but for Mr. Macpherson, it was more of a trade of business government managers. The party abandoned its idea of paying social credit dividends, and the opposition collapsed, even running as an organized group of independents in 1940.
After the publication of Mr. Macpherson's book, Social Credit won four more majorities, undefeated until 1971, when the PCs won office as a new set of more competent managers. Soon after, Social Credit MLAs were either defeated or crossed the floor, and a familiar story unfolded: former Social Credit opposition leader Raymond Speaker became a PC cabinet minister.
Using the concept of business governments from Mr. Macpherson's Democracy in Alberta can help us grapple with this week's strangeness. The seemingly mind-boggling language about "reunification" makes sense if you think about it as seeing conflict between parties as regrettable. It also explains why parties can do well against incumbents when they present themselves as competent mangers (like the Liberals did in 1993, travelling the province with a debt clock in an election they could have won), but have trouble winning when they are more ideological.
Preserving the PC dynasty is then, in Mr. Macpherson's view, more about the maintenance of business government than it is an ideological struggle. After all, the PCs have won elections by campaigning against the threats of both left-wing and right-wing parties. Thinking about Alberta in this way, the Wildrose crossings are not a weird power grab but just another event in Alberta's long history of business governments.
Mr. Macpherson's book might also point the way forward to how a party will finally displace the PCs: a group will successfully present itself as more competent than the incumbents, and usher in some new managers of yet another business government.
Paul Fairie is a political scientist at the University of Calgary, where he studies voter behaviour.