Wanted in Alberta: one premier

As the PC party soars again in the polls, a gang of potential leaders is scrambling for the top job

Wanted: one premier

Larry Wong/Edmonton Journal

Alberta’s Progressive Conservative government turned 40 on Aug. 30. That first win back in 1971 was regarded as an upset, but one man saw it coming—Peter Lougheed’s rural boss, House leader, and political Merlin, Dr. Hugh Horner. In the days before the election, the tall, soft-spoken Horner circulated amongst legislature reporters, promising skeptical scribes that the upstart PCs would capture about 50 seats (the final figure was 49). Today Horner’s son Doug is part of a six-person field from which PC members will select a chief for an election fight anticipated next spring.

It’s the latest chapter in the tale of eternal Alberta PC renewal. This time last year there were many who didn’t think the Tories would make it to age 41. Premier Ed Stelmach, the compromise candidate who had succeeded Ralph Klein, had turned out to be a tongue-tied bungler. And the Wildrose Alliance, a right-wing alternative party led by young and eloquent Danielle Smith, was at the government’s heels in the polls. A January caucus coup led by Ted Morton forced Stelmach into a slow-motion retirement.

Morton is one of the candidates for the leadership, and whether or not he triumphs, his move seems to have been the best thing for the party. With a gang of possible leaders capturing media attention and shoplifting Wildrose policies, Alberta’s natural governing party has surged back into a commanding lead. A late July Environics survey gave the PCs a towering 54 per cent share of voters, with the Wildrose (renamed simply the Wildrose Party this summer) at 16 per cent and the NDP and Liberals even further back.

Stelmach fell victim to a bleak budget picture that has improved since, thanks largely to higher-than-forecast oil prices and the economic spinoff effects thereof. The 2011-12 deficit has already been cut from an estimated $3.4 billion to just $1.3 billion. The final figure may be close to zero, and the new premier will have a fighting chance of running behind a surplus for 2012-13. In short, the PC leadership no longer looks quite so much like a poisoned chalice. Results from the first ballot will be announced Sept. 17, and if nobody has 50 per cent of the vote, the top three candidates will proceed to a preferential Oct. 1 runoff.

The need for one seems likely. The ostensible leader in the race is Gary Mar, who served Ralph Klein as health and education minister and has the ailing ex-premier’s endorsement. Mar spent the last three years in Washington as Alberta’s official U.S. agent, but he held together a network of supporters at home, started with the most impressive war chest among the leadership candidates, and was ready off the mark when the gun sounded. He has the deepest caucus support, with 26 MLAs in his camp to Horner’s 15 and Morton’s 11.

But Mar is looking a little like Michael Ignatieff did in the 2006 federal Liberal leadership race—a prodigal son who may be the early leader, but not necessarily the ultimate favourite. Environics’ July survey found that more than half of voters were still undecided vis-à-vis the leadership race, but gave Mar 12 per cent, with Morton at eight per cent and Justice Minister Alison Redford six per cent. Since then, Mar has worn the brightest bull’s eye during the all-candidates debates, and even the Wildrose has made him a particular focus of criticism. He created controversy on Aug. 16 when he declared that Albertans should abandon their fears of two-tiered medicare and allow for-profit queue-jumping to happen in private clinics; the other candidates lined up dutifully to blast Mar for his un-Canadian sentiments, though the ultra-conservative Morton kept silent.

The outcome of the race will depend heavily on who reaches the second ballot. Horner’s caucus support indicates that he has a chance, but despite his distinguished pedigree he drew just 4.7 per cent in the Environics poll. As the preferred candidate of the northern Alberta machine that crowned Stelmach, he faces particular hostility from Calgary and the south, and has been less able to distance himself from Stelmach’s stumbles. That leaves Mar, Morton, and Redford as the most likely final trio.

From that standpoint, the campaign’s most interesting development in August was the virtually explicit formation of a Redford-Morton pact. The pair appeared together at a Rotary Club event in Calgary Aug. 19, warning Calgarians not to repeat the apathy that gave northerner Stelmach victory in 2006. And Morton’s friend and University of Calgary colleague Barry Cooper hailed the duo in an Aug. 10 editorial for the Calgary Herald, claiming that they alone are the “serious choices.”

Morton and Redford make curious bedfellows. He is the country’s fiercest critic of judicial activism and human rights rhetoric, while she spent the 1990s as a globetrotting human rights scholar and advocate for the United Nations. Nonetheless, they appear to be manoeuvring to join forces against Mar in the final count. Whoever wins, an appetizing honour awaits the winner of the PC race if he or she can follow through and win the general election in 2012; such a victory would allow the PCs to pass the Nova Scotia Liberals (1882-1925) as the longest-standing provincial government in the annals of Confederation.

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