Stelmach seems ready for fight, not flight – Editorial

GEORGE BROWN/Off the Record

You couldn’t tell from his last luncheon with Alberta’s newspaper publishers and editors May 6 that Ed Stelmach was a lame duck leader, days away from his 60th birthday and a week away from rising in the legislature as premier for the last time.

He still talked passionately about building a better Alberta. He was spittin’ mad talking about the need for power transmission to serve future economic growth; defensive about the Land Use Framework; and certain the Progressive Conservatives will re-invent themselves again and maintain power after the next election.

Stelmach didn’t seem like he’s ready to spend his weekends in Devon bouncing his grandchildren on his knee. He still has the “fire in his belly,” that drive to want to bring about change, to be a catalyst.

Alberta’s 13th premier all but retired on Friday the 13th.

It’s been said that Stelmach is leaving, in part to save the Progressive Conservative party from becoming an even more fractured caucus, and then an election in 2012 that promises to devolve into what’s known in Canada as U.S.-style attack ads. While we’re sure the Tories can sling mud and make a campaign about personalities rather than policies with the best of them, maybe Stelmach just isn’t that guy.

Maybe nice guys get out with their dignity intact.

It was a surprise to anyone who can’t do math that Stelmach won the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party in December 2006. He was the compromise candidate, the second choice among the party faithful who decided who would be the commoner to replace King Ralph. For those who didn’t like the polarizing choices of Jim Dinning on the left or Ted Morton on the right, there was Steady Eddie in the middle.

Albertans didn’t get a premier who bought airlines and oil companies or who invested huge sums of their tax dollars in risky market ventures. They didn’t get a premier who slashed spending on education, blew up hospitals and didn’t know Alberta was in a boom economy until it was half over. It will take more study by historians than I am capable here to analyze the five years of Stelmach’s administration and the “legacy” he has left Albertans.

Stelmach’s development as a politician suited him well for service as premier. He was a Lamont County councillor and reeve before he was elected to the legislature in 1993. His succession of cabinet positions — agriculture, infrastructure, transportation and intergovernmental affairs —developed in him an understanding of the foundations Alberta must build upon for its long-term stability. He understands strong municipalities are essential to a strong Alberta in a Western Canada ready to assert itself in Confederation.

Which makes his departure now all the more puzzling.

The beginning of the end was the back-to-back deficit budgets that forced the government to dip into its sustainability fund to avoid accumulating debt. Semantics perhaps, because that is what the fund was created for — it’s just that no one expected it would be this government, at this time, to use it.

Certainly there was a difference of opinion between Morton and Stelmach on what this last budget should look like. There was once a promise to return to surplus budgets by 2012-13 but that was postponed. It’s been a tradition in Canadian politics for leaders to appoint their rivals to the finance portfolio — to sink or swim. It can be a training ground or a junk heap. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Apparently Morton said he would rather quit than submit to the legislature the budget his leader demanded. Stelmach’s reaction, to quit instead, was either classy or cowardly. Whether he took one for the party or shied away from a fight he was afraid of losing may not be known until after the next provincial election.

The Tory leadership race now has six contenders: Morton, Doug Griffiths, Doug Horner, Alison Redford, Kleinian health minister Gary Mar and now Getty-era energy minister Rick Orman. Albertans are telling their politicians they want change and they will get it this fall when a new leader and premier is elected. That’s not likely to be enough for the Wildrose sharks who smell blood in the water.

It will be up to Alberta’s new premier and his war cabinet to differentiate themselves from the Wildrose party and the raft of opposition wannabes that have gained traction during the Stelmach years.

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