Lotus land is still lovely, thank you - Macleans.ca

Lotus land is still lovely, thank you

FROM THE ALBERTA TORY AGM: Stelmach’s comfortable finish ends two days of nice-making… Is this reality?



Like barbarians calling forth some mammoth creature lurking behind great walls—I’m thinking King Kong here, people—Alberta Tories banged their rubber sticks together on Friday in Red Deer for Ed Stelmach, their leader.

It was for many reasons a surreal show of support—Stelmach, for all his good qualities, probably doesn’t deserve to be treated like Churchill flashing the V sign—one echoed last night in the results of a leadership review vote that had offered PC delegates the chance to seek a new chief for the PC party. Few Tories were disappointed when Stelmach won the support of a large majority of voting delegates.

And yet for a while the prospect of low numbers for Stelmach seemed very real. Support for the Tories has plummeted in recent polls to historic, 16-year lows, driven down by a ballooning deficit, healthcare woes, and anger within Calgary’s oil and gas community. The charismatic Danielle Smith has arrived as leader of the Wildrose Alliance, which recently stole a by-election from the Tories, slapping a name candidate to third place, behind even the Liberals. Most recently, the government’s botched H1N1 strategy resulted in vaccination clinics being shuttered for four days.

But despite it all, Stelmach received the support of 77.4 per cent of the voting delegates.

The forces that had been gathering against the premier from within his own party—mainly Calgary Tories with links to the Ralph Klein era (including Klein himself, who’d set a widely-accepted threshold for the vote of 70 per cent)—seemed to dissipate some weeks ago, after influential party members like Peter Lougheed called for delegates to support the premier.

Nor were there any alternatives waiting in the wings, as there had been when a similar vote forced Klein from politics in 2006—Jim Dinning, Ted Morton, Stelmach.

So the premier’s numbers tonight were nowhere near as surprising as last year’s massive electoral victory, when he slammed his critics by capturing 72 of 83 seats and reduced his political opponents to rumps in the legislature.

Last night, after the vote, one aide confessed he’d been worried—hadn’t slept much over the past two weeks. Nothing had been certain. In the end, it all turned out fine.

Yes, everything is fine now. The results concluded a two-day AGM wherein Stelmach’s enemies were conclusively marginalized. But the party’s Red Deer experience also left the door open for change “in due time,” painless modification, a tweak here and there. The numbers, said Edmonton MLA Thomas Lukaszuk, “puts our premier in the position of comfort, where he knows that a vast majority of party members support him, but also indicates to him that there’s room for improvement. That’s a good place to be in.”

Stelmach hinted that a cabinet shuffle is coming (his health minister, Ron Liepert, is the target of much criticism, what with an unpopular campaign to reform the healthcare system and in the aftermath of H1N1). A tough, to-the-bone budget, answer to the fiscal conservatism of the Wildrose, is expected early next year; insiders promise, almost gleefully, that it will make the Stelmach government even more unpopular.

But more substantial change does not appear in the offing. Indeed, all of it—the AGM, the leadership review results and Stelmach’s own remarks—feeds into a single theme: continuity.

“There were those (during the AGM) who said, ‘Be very careful, because we are not to the hard right’—like some are,” Stelmach said during a press conference after the results were announced, a veiled mention of the Wildrose  Alliance. The Progressive Conservative party, he added, is “a big tent. That’s one of the reasons for the success of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party over the decades.

“Change, new leaders, new ideas. Fresh ideas.”

Same old party, though, 38 years later.

Two, maybe three years remain before Stelmach must call an election. Last night’s results risk making his team even more smug—he has defied his critics, again. Over the next 24 months, Alberta’s economy will improve, the Wildrose will stumble and sputter out, and the Tories will remain, ready for another mandate. Or so goes the orthodoxy within the PC party, it seems.

Therefore all the nice-making over the weekend. Why change? And perhaps they’re right. Why quit eating lotus when you’re in no danger of exile from lotus land?

(7:30 p.m.) The question was simple: “Do you wish a provincial leadership convention to be held?”

There were 1191 ballots cast. A scant 269 answered in the affirmative—for a new convention. Nine hundred and twenty-two said no—77. 4 per cent. Within the sweet spot—not to low, not to high—but only just.

Stelmach assured his fellow party members: “Changes are coming but they will be done in due course …. We shall plan, and then we shall execute.” He stopped. “I shouldn’t have used that word.”

(4:30 p.m.) Some members of the Tory crew gathered at the Capri for the Progressive Conservative party’s AGM—and today’s mandatory leadership review—speak of a sweet spot, a minimum threshold for Premier Ed Stelmach’s support, but a ceiling that demonstrates acknowledgment his government has made missteps.

Less than 70 per cent support for Stelmach, say many Tories, and he is in trouble. More than 80 per cent, and the party is in trouble—out of touch, disconnected, tin-eared. Think of the rig worker who’s not seen a paycheck in a while, watching Stelmach accept a standing ovation after a big number is announced.

Dinner for the delegates and the rest of the Tory funmakers in Red Deer is at 7 p.m. Mountain. There the results will be officially released.

Meanwhile, tales of goings on at the convention emerge. Calgary Tories—the unhappy kind—confronting the premier’s people over the polls. How has the party of Lougheed and Klein been laid so low, they ask, and blame the denizens of Room 307, the premier’s office. People are invited outside, but the verbal scuffle ends in a handshake. Another Calgarian, prominent in business, looks around the Capri Friday night and checks out in disgust, judging the assembly blind to the perceptions of regular Albertans; he does not even vote.

And the party keeps trucking along.

(1 p.m.) A quick update from a question-and-answer session between voting Tory delegates and Premier Ed Stelmach in Red Deer.

Responding to a question posed to him concerning a recent Toronto Dominion Bank-financed report, put together by the David Suzuki Foundation and the Pembina Institute, that said Canada could in fact meet the Kyoto reduction targets, but only on the backs of the western provinces, Stelmach said: “As long as I have breath in my lungs, there’s not going to be another tranfer of wealth from Alberta to any other jurisdiction in Canada.”

Taking recourse in a well-worn Alberta premier strategy, Stelmach then aimed his wrath at the French-speaking east. Those behind the report, he said, “want to see another wealth tranfer from this province to the province of the Quebec.” He added: “Albertans are doing their part … we’re going to lead this country out of recession. But no more.”

Confronting critics who wonder why Alberta hasn’t socked away all its nonrenewable natural resource wealth, like Norway has done with an oil fund now valued at over $400 billion, Stelmach said: “Norway is a country … we’re a sub-state.” Then he quipped: “Someone was saying maybe we should do something about that.”

Judging by Stelmach’s theme music during last night’s speech, he already has some ideas about an anthem.

(N0v. 6, 8:30) May I offer you a bromide?Stelmach’s pre-vote speech suggests he believes he’s about to win big

It was supposed to be the speech of his life. It had to be.

But at the Capri Hotel, Trade & Convention Centre, Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach instead delivered the kind of boilerplate that is only issued in the presence of those in the throes of partisan ecstasy.

He was among friends—nay, family—people who will accept you just the way you are, because you are who you are.

The speech left the impression that the leadership vote tomorrow is a fait accompli. Good news within the party, maybe, but one wonders if the results will be so strong that Albertans will know, unshakably, that the party that governs them does not understand them—or care to.

Same goes for anyone within the Progressive Conservative party who wonders what a future under Stelmach’s leaderships holds.

Indeed, Stelmach’s speech delivered not one lolly for those uncertain of his leadership. After two weeks in which Albertans watched the Tories bungle the H1N1 vaccine rollout and learned of polls that showed the party has slipped to a position almost neck and neck with the upstart Wildrose Alliance Party, Stelmach spoke to his friends and dismissed his critics.

“As your leader,” he intoned, “I’m not afraid of criticism, or to take advice, or to take a stand.” He added, almost combatively: “I’m not going to back away from my principles: honesty, integrity, transparency, and taking on difficult issues.”

Stelmach further encouraged the crowd to remember that, as Albertans, they have gonads. “Taking the lead,” he told them, “as a global energy producer, as Canada’s economic engine” is “bound to attract some criticism.” He started to clear his throat, Stelmach’s signal that he is about to tell a joke. “We’ve seen some of the people hanging from different structures. And that’s okay. We’re Albertans. We’re not shy.”

There was little of substance in the speech that might give the party, or voting delegates, a clue as to how the government will pull the province from the brink of systemic financial malaise. He said new limits will be placed on spending and rejected, yet again, the notion of a sales tax—the latter a surefire way to offset diminishing commodity revenues in a province still addicted to its non-renewable natural resources.

It might all have been deliberate—a gesture of contempt directed toward those who would have the Stelmach Tories change. The constant refrain in Stelmach’s speech was the mandate delivered to the Progressive conservative party in March, 2008, 72 seats strong.

Keep quiet. Take your medicine. Like it.

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways… The ballots at the Stelmach leadership review are numbered

(Nov. 6, 6:30 p.m.) At the Capri Hotel, Trade & Convention Centre, site of their annual general meeting this weekend and tomorrow’s mandatory leadership review, the Progressive Conservatives are presenting a phalanx of Ed Stelmachs—little black-and-white buttons, extreme close-ups of the premier’s face, pinned to lapels, like broaches on women’s blouses, over the hearts of Tories one and all.

It’s a showy demonstration of support for a premier who, of late, has found little among Alberta’s hoi polloi. “The boss has a lot of support ,” Jonathan Denis, MLA for Calgary Egmont, tells Maclean’s. Still, don’t get too excited, he says (though he projects further happy days for Stelmach). A lot of people wore Klein buttons in 2006, when a leadership review vote gave former premier Ralph Klein 55 per cent, forcing his retirement. “It’s a secret ballot,” says Denis.

Well, maybe. The big news in the Capri lobby tonight is that the “secret” ballots are numbered—a development that doesn’t lend support to the notion that the yeas and nays will be truly untraceable.

Could be that’s why most delegates are predicting a strong result for the premier tomorrow. Ken Allred, MLA for St. Albert, says recent polls showing the Wildrose Alliance Party giving the Tories a run for their money are worse news for the Alberta Liberals and the NDP.

UPDATE: Stelmach’s people say numbered ballots are nothing new and help in accurate counting post-vote. But because some delegates see the digits as a problem administrators have agreed to punch them out. How many people have griped about the ballots? Not many. “It’s a bit of mischief by some people with an interest in seeing Ed crash and burn,” says someone in the premier’s office.

(Nov. 6, 12 p.m.) In politics, there are polls and then there are polls. And, as Premier Ed Stelmach prepares to face his party tonight—he’s slated to deliver a speech at 8 p.m. to open the Alberta Progressive Conservative party’s annual general meeting in Red Deer—the comparison with Saskatchewan’s premier, Brad Wall is striking. And it must really sting.

Elected in November, 2007, five months or so before Stelmach won his first real mandate (he first became premier of Alberta after winning the Tory leadership race in 2006), Wall is young, dynamic, full of ideas, and has successfully steered his energy-rich province through some pretty difficult terrain. According to a Sigma Analytics survey conducted for the Regina Leader-Post, his government is more popular now than when first elected two years ago, despite recession and wobbly commodity prices. Almost 60 per cent of decided voters would go ahead and cast another ballot for Wall’s Saskatchewan Party.

And yet, because of declining potash revenues, Wall’s government has had to resort to much the same rainy-day fund shell game in its budgeting as Stelmach’s, which is dipping into its sustainability savings account to compensate for low natural gas and oil revenues. Stelmach takes a hit, Wall doesn’t, and there’s something other than mere management ability that separates the two.

Another scary thing, for Stelmach: Wall’s Saskatchewan Party, an amalgam of disgruntled conservatives and Liberals, didn’t exist in 1991, when the Saskatchewan NDP first took back government after years in the hinterlands. Founded in 1997, it took the Sask Party a decade to wrench the legislature away from a party fatigued by years in power.

The way the polls are going, you wonder whether Alberta’s Wildrose Alliance Party will take as long.

(Nov. 5) It’s been eclipsed for the last couple of weeks by Alberta’s H1N1 debacle, but a poll commissioned by the Calgary Herald showing the Tories barely ahead of the Wildrose Alliance Party focuses the mind wonderfully once more on Ed Stelmach’s leadership review this weekend. Maclean’s will be covering the Progressive Conservative party’s annual general meeting in Red Deer from this perch.