Preston Manning is president of the Manning Centre for Building Democracy .
The statement of "aligned values and principles" jointly announced by Premier Jim Prentice and Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith introduces a significant change in Alberta's political landscape.
According to the statement, government policy will align with a number of key planks from the Wildrose platform: strengthening property rights; prioritizing infrastructure projects; implementing several social service and municipal reforms; and allowing free votes on private members' bills and government bills raising issues of conscience. As a consequence, a majority of Wildrose members have joined the government caucus and others may or may not do so, pending consultations with party members and their constituents.
From the standpoint of the Alberta public, the most important aspect of this development is the willingness of the government to commit to a multiyear fiscal plan to balance the budget and limit operational cost increases to the rate of inflation plus an allowance for population growth. If implemented, this provision commits Alberta's new Premier to moving his government onto fiscally responsible ground largely abandoned by his two predecessors. It also allows Wildrose to deliver on the fiscal responsibility plank in its platform – the number-one reason why more than 440,000 Albertans voted for it in the last provincial election.
Both the Premier and Ms. Smith have warned that Alberta is headed for some tough times economically due to falling oil prices and the continuing difficulties in moving Alberta petroleum to markets. They can also legitimately argue that if ever there was a time for Albertans, including conservatives of every stripe, to "pull together," now is the time.
Will the agreement pass the "democratic test" – the approval of Wildrose members and supporters and the approval of Wildrose constituents and Alberta electors? Only time will tell. Since the Wildrose constitution requires 120 days' notice for any Special Resolution to be voted on, party members will likely get their say in a vote early next spring. And, of course, Alberta electors will ultimately pass judgment on the new alignment at the next provincial election, by which time its effects will be clear and easier to evaluate.
Some conservatives will rightly worry that the only option open now to those Albertans looking for an alternative to the government will be some left-of-centre party. Both the provincial Liberals and NDP are already criticizing the new conservative alignment and professing to see opportunity for themselves in the altered political landscape. But as the province moves into more difficult times, Albertans will likely prefer constructive alternatives from the opposition rather than mere criticism. And historically in Alberta, it is parties offering right-of-centre alternatives that have done better in opposition than those offering left-of-centre solutions. Since both the provincial Liberals and NDP and their predecessors have lost 24 provincial elections in a row, both would be better advised to address their own deficiencies rather than focusing on the alleged deficiencies of the new conservative alignment.
As one who has spent many years trying to achieve "political realignment" among Reformers and Conservatives at the federal level, I know how difficult a task this is. If one is a democrat, it also takes time to address understandable suspicions and achieve consensus among the grassroots members who are the backbone of any political party. Sometimes these efforts fail, but hopefully the modest realignment put forward by Mr. Prentice and Ms. Smith will experience a happier fate for the long-term benefit of Alberta at a time when Albertans need to pull together as never before.