By DOUG FIRBY
Danielle Smith, meet your nemesis — Ted Morton.
Once a friend and philosophical ally, Morton is now the person with the best chance of stopping the steady march of Smith’s conservative Wildrose Alliance party to the halls of power in Edmonton.
As long as Alberta’s ruling Progressive Conservatives stayed aligned behind the honest- but-bumbling Premier Ed Stelmach, Smith seemed all but destined to form the next government. All that changed recently when Stelmach finally bowed to intense internal party pressure and announced he would not face the next election as party leader.
Morton, to be fair, does not have a lock on the leadership. But he is heavily favoured to be the party’s choice, as the PCs aim to preserve their 40-year grip on power by shifting to the political right in response to the very real threat posed by the fledgling Wildrose Alliance. That upstart party is in a near-deadlock with the Tories in polling, even though the WA came into existence less than two years ago.
Here’s what Morton has going for him:
He can talk. This professor in political science is a polished, if not dynamic, public speaker with countless hours of practice in front of classrooms and voters. Stelmach, by comparison, struggled painfully to read from carefully crafted scripts and could barely ad lib at all.
He’s smart. Morton can think on his feet and has a deep understanding of both provincial issues and federal provincial relationships.
He is a fiscal hawk. The Tories have failed to effectively curb spending excesses under Stelmach. Morton has openly advocated for smaller government and tighter budget controls. With the province facing another deficit budget next year, the party expects the public to rally behind someone who will take the tough measures necessary to get costs under control.
He has experience. When he ran for the leadership against Jim Dinning in 2006, Morton was a virtual neophyte. Now, he has several cabinet portfolios under his belt, and has shown himself to be both effective and able to avoid unnecessary controversy. In particular, he earned kudos for his shepherding of the Land Use Framework discussion during his time as minister of Sustainable Resource Development.
Morton has his challenges, too. He has little natural charisma, and lacks the on-camera radiance that Smith can command with her Colgate smile. He also bears the embarrassment of being out-manoeuvred by Stelmach in 2006 when both he and then-frontrunner Jim Dinning fell short of winning the leadership. Many PCs of the day feared Morton harbored a far right Harper-like socially conservative agenda that would take the party out of the political centre. Given the Wildrose Alliance’s growth, it’s unlikely such fears will be a show-stopper this time.
Few challengers of same calibre
Morton’s is not the only name on the leadership contender list. Other front-runners put forward are Dinning, a former cabinet minister in Ralph Klein’s government, Jim Prentice, the former federal environment minister who recently announced his departure from politics, and a list of current provincial cabinet ministers, including Justice Minister Alison Redford, Deputy Premier Doug Horner, and Education Minister Doug Horner.
Prentice, a Calgarian and political moderate, would be hugely popular, but seemed to be unequivocal when he recently announced his departure from federal politics. He told supporters he’s out for good, becoming vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce so he can spend more time with family.
The others, all also-rans, can best hope to be spoilers in the leadership race — and pray that they don’t sneak up the middle like Stelmach did to win the big prize.
If Morton does seize control of the Tories, the next election (likely in 2012) will be very different from the last. Two popular right-of-centre parties — the PCs and Wildrose Alliance — will be slugging it out for traditional voter support. On the left, the NDP and Liberals will likely limp along with support from just their core constituencies.
The wild card is the new Alberta Party, an alliance of reformists who include some of the minds who helped engineer Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s shocking come from- nowhere victory last fall.
For 40 years of Tory rule, Albertans have said that politics have been too predictable. Not any more. Stelmach’s departure provides early notice of a sea change, and a new leader of the PCs is likely to be just the first step.
Doug Firby is managing editor, and Alberta columnist, for Troy Media.