CALGARY - Historic cracks have appeared in Alberta's Tory political dynasty.
For the first time in the party's 38 consecutive years in power, two Progressive Conservatives have willingly crossed the floor - to join the upstart Wildrose Alliance.
The two are former cabinet minister Heather Forsyth from Calgary and backbencher Rob Anderson, who represents the Airdrie-Chestermere constituency north and east of the city.
The move is a boon for the fledgling right-wing Wildrose, which had only one seat in the legislature, but has been polling ahead of Premier Ed Stelmach and his massive Tory majority in recent weeks.
"It's clearly a decision being made on principle," said Danielle Smith, the charismatic and telegenic Wildrose leader, whose profile has pushed the party to the forefront of the Alberta political scene.
"Let me be blunt. For any PC to abandon the perks, the prestige and the security from a governing caucus of 70 to join a caucus of one in a party that is still not quite two years old, well, that would require a level of courage and commitment to principle that is rarely seen in politics."
Forsyth, former solicitor general and minister of children's services, has been at odds with the premier since he dumped her from cabinet after the last provincial election in 2008. The five-term member of the legislature had been critical of Stelmach's leadership during the campaign.
"This is a decision I have not taken lightly. My priority has always been to represent my constituents and Albertans and to bring their views forward," she said Monday.
"Under Premier Stelmach this government has lost its way and to watch what has happened is nothing more than wrong, and I simply could not stand by and be silent any longer."
Forsyth said Stelmach managed to "destroy the economic engine" of Alberta with his "flawed" review of royalties the province charges oil and gas companies. She also called the government mean-spirited, citing a recent plan to cut funding for hygiene products at mental health facilities. That decision was quickly overturned.
Anderson was only elected in 2008, but was a member of the provincial Treasury Board and considered an up-and-comer by many in the Conservative party.
He said he was tired of not having his views heard.
"Most Albertans will be disappointed to know that politics in our province has evolved into a process that is almost completely undemocratic," Anderson said.
"There are very few free votes in caucus. Virtually all legislation is created and developed by various unelected government appointees with direction from the premier and a small cadre of ministers whose distinguishing attribute is unconditional allegiance to their leader."
The Tories have lost four seats since winning 72 of 83 seats in the last election. One of the biggest blows came last year when they finished third in a Calgary byelection that the Wildrose won. The other seat was lost when Guy Boutilier, who represents the oilsands region of Fort McMurray, was turfed from caucus for publicly disagreeing with the government. He now sits as an Independent.
The Liberals have nine seats in the legislature and the New Democrats two.
Stelmach was on vacation and was not available for comment, but his spokesman, Tom Olsen, downplayed the defections. He noted that the government still has 68 legislature members.
"Alberta, like the rest of the world, is facing a recession and we have actually dealt with the recession better than most jurisdictions because the premier had the foresight to establish a fund of $17 billion to see us through this kind of situation," Olsen said.
"It is difficult economic times and tough decisions have to be made, and teams stay together behind their leader and that is what 68 members of the Stelmach government are doing."
Stelmach's popularity has been waning in the face of an economic downturn that has put Alberta's once booming energy-fuelled economy on the skids.
His policies of running a massive deficit to help keep people employed and saving money on needed infrastructure projects have been blasted by fiscal hawks who have been urging the government to make deep spending cuts.
Stelmach weathered a party leadership review in November with 77 per cent support, but the grumbling among some members of his party continues.
An Alberta political scientist said the defections are bad news for Stelmach.
"It's the first real floor-crossing, the first real defection, and they're credible people," said Peter McCormick from the University of Lethbridge. "It's a wonderful start to the year for the Wildrose Alliance. For Ed Stelmach it's, 'My God. Will it ever stop raining?"'
Smith said she is not expecting any other Tories to cross the floor, but McCormick thinks others will.
"It's the first crack in the wall. The first defections are the hardest. You know the Conservative party has been sitting on potential defectors and they've been working pretty hard to keep people onside. The first defections are very significant."
Smith said party members are being canvassed on whether Forsyth and Anderson should resign their seats and run under the Wildrose banner in a byelection. The Alliance is asking Speaker Ken Kowalski to grant it official party status now that it holds three seats.
Forsyth at one time served as chair of the Alberta Heritage Savings and Trust Fund and as a member of cabinet helped establish the country's first Amber Alert program, Alberta's integrated response to organized crime and a program to protect children involved in prostitution.
Anderson was elected in 2008 and in addition to his duties on cabinet committees was parliamentary assistant to the solicitor general.
Brent Ronald, a voter in Forsyth's constituency, showed up at Monday's announcement to show support for her.
"We voted for Heather. We did not vote for the Stelmach government," Ronald said.
But Janice Harrington, a member of the Tory riding association in Anderson's area, said she had no advance warning of the announcement and came to hear it first hand.
"I would have liked to have had an opportunity to consult with him. There are a lot of people who have some concerns, and rightfully so, but I don't think that this was anything more than opportunism," she said.
"I think he sees this as an opportunity to further where he wants to go with his career."
- With files from John Cotter in Edmonton