Alberta's political lines were redrawn Wednesday as the head of the Official Opposition led the bulk of her Wildrose Party into the Progressive Conservative establishment she spent the past five years attacking on a daily basis. The mass defection of nine of 14 MLAs effectively ends the Wildrose as a political force in Alberta and is a resounding victory for Premier Jim Prentice.
After 48 hours during which both parties were tight-lipped, Mr. Prentice and Danielle Smith held a press conference on Wednesday evening where they shook hands and cemented a partnership that could change Alberta's politics for the next generation.
"We are reuniting the conservative family," Mr. Prentice said. "Once again, the government caucus will represent the full diversity of Alberta."
When pressed on how she would explain her defection to the party's base, Ms. Smith claimed victory: "We won," she said. "We brought Wildrose into the mainstream and became a positive force in Alberta politics."
Ms. Smith's decision to gut a party rich after a year of successful fundraising and only a few percentage points behind the government in popular support is astonishing and unparalleled in Canadian political history.
The decision to accept Ms. Smith, along with her lieutenants and the key MLAs in Wildrose, came only after a lengthy debate in the Tory caucus Wednesday. The vote was not unanimous, according to Mr. Prentice.
Wildrose had long been a political entity to the right of the government, demanding the Tories cut spending and delineate stronger rights for landowners and parents, two issues close to the party's socially conservative base.
Hours after she resigned as Wildrose Leader – a position she held for five years – Ms. Smith said that her former party and the Tories under Mr. Prentice now shared the same values and principles.
Alberta's Tories have been in power for 43 years, the longest serving provincial government in Canadian history, but Ms. Smith led an opposition that was considered one of the most effective the province had ever seen. Certainly, Ms. Smith's own performance in the house was a consistent thorn in the government's side. Only a few weeks ago, the party ran attack ads against Mr. Prentice as he sought a seat in the legislature.
However, since the departure of former premier Alison Redford, the two parties have quickly moved together. Ms. Redford had pushed the Tories toward the political centre after becoming premier and won the 2012 election after warning Albertans during the campaign that Wildrose's right-wing agenda was dangerous.
While calling for a reuniting of "all small-c conservatives" under his government, Mr. Prentice rejected the assertion that he had turned his back on the party's progressive wing. "We will continue to be a broad-tent conservative party that embraces progressive voters," said Mr. Prentice.
According to Stephen Carter, Ms. Redford's former chief of staff, Wednesday's announcement marked the end of PC party values, exemplified by former premier Peter Lougheed.
"Mr. Prentice is going to stamp on everything Peter Lougheed held dear. Peter Lougheed's party is now dead," said Mr. Carter, who has recently helped in campaigns against Mr. Prentice.
Walking into the Tory caucus meeting early Wednesday morning, Government House Leader Jonathan Denis said he was ready to bury the hatchet with Ms. Smith. "I'm prepared to put my best foot forward; I'm prepared to leave past grievances in the past," Mr. Denis said.
Ms. Smith revealed Wednesday that she had been eyeing a move to the Tories since soon after Mr. Prentice came to power in mid-September. What followed his arrival was a series of crushing by-election losses for Wildrose.
With only five members, the new Wildrose will be tied with the Alberta Liberals for seats in the legislature. On Wednesday evening, Liberal Leader Raj Sherman said he was asking the Speaker to designate his party as the official opposition.
At least one member of the remaining Wildrose caucus is expected to retire in early 2015, and two of Mr. Sherman's MLAs have expressed interest in leaving the party to run for the federal Liberals. With only four members, New Democratic Leader Rachel Notley could lead the opposition within months.
While many expected that Ms. Smith would receive a post in Mr. Prentice's cabinet, the Premier ruled out a shuffle in the near future.
Under the agreement governing her move, the Tories adopted a number of policies that were at the core of the last Wildrose electoral campaign – among them a pledge not to introduce a sales tax, a call for a balanced budget and a commitment to patient choice in health care. The last is often seen as a euphemism for increased privatization.
In her resignation letter, Ms. Smith asked her former party to hold a membership vote and consider folding into the Tory camp. Wildrose Party president Dave Yager said that Wildrose would remain in opposition to the government.
"The Progressive Conservative Party has a history of saying one thing and doing something else," said Mr. Yager, who questioned how conservative Mr. Prentice's government would be. "I'm trying to speak for the party with a level tone, but Jim Prentice hasn't done anything! We are going to remain a political party."