Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government is not the mighty monolith that it appears.
Another crack appeared in the façade yesterday when Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA Guy Boutilier (pictured at right) – who in happier times occupied important posts in Ralph Klein’s cabinet – went public with his dissatisfaction with Mr. Stelmach’s stewardship.
The cause of Mr. Boutilier’s outburst was seemingly a small one: Health Minister Ron Liepert’s decision last spring not to proceed with construction of a new seniors’ facility in Fort Mac that had been announced by the government a year and a half ago.
But when a sitting MLA says he is “not at all pleased,” and expresses such sentiments in emails sent openly to his constituents, that is the political equivalent of a cry of bloody murder!
When one of Mr. Boutilier’s critical constituent emails leaks to the Canadian Press, and the MLA tells inquiring reporters that he really doesn’t care whether or not the government disciplines him for the indiscretion and what’s more he stands by his statements, that is a very powerful testament that all is not well in the House of Stelmach.
MLAs don’t diss their premier because premiers hold so much power in our British Parliamentary system – including, most importantly, the power to hire and fire cabinet ministers from the ranks of mere MLAs. Cabinet, of course, has all the power in our system – not to mention most of the perks.
So when a sitting MLA – and a former cabinet minister to boot – says things like Mr. Boutilier said, no matter how politely couched, that is not just a crack in the façade, it’s a gaping crevasse! It means the premier is losing his hold over his MLAs.
Mr. Boutilier’s remarks are one more piece of evidence that Premier Stelmach’s position is more precarious than would be normal for a leader with such a massive majority in the House.
The fact is that significant numbers of Conservative MLAs, especially those who are from sophisticated urban ridings or who were associated with other leadership candidates after Mr. Klein stepped down, are unhappy with the way Mr. Stelmach and his rural cronies in cabinet are running the government.
It’s well known that many in the caucus were embarrassed by Bill 44, the government’s law allowing religious fundamentalists of all stripes to opt their children out of the provincial educational curriculum. Others, some quite conservative in their economic views, are nevertheless very worried about the political implications of the premier’s stubborn resistance to raising taxes during a recession.
Needless to say, those like Mr. Boutilier who were associated with another premier cannot be happy at being cut out of the cabinet action. What’s more, this problem is going to get worse if the premier wants to show some personal leadership in tough times, because about all he can do is shrink his cabinet.
So that’s two, and possibly three, big factions within Mr. Stelmach’s own huge majority who are growing restive and dissatisfied with this weak, compromise leader who “came up the middle” of a hotly contested party convention, much like the unlamented Conservative prime minister Joe Clark.
Add to that potential losses of die-hard social-conservative voters in several urban areas to the loony-right Wildrose Alliance Party, and this adds up to a real problem for the premier.
Indeed, about the only bright spot for this troubled premier, is that the two opposition parties to his left have weak leadership and troubles of their own.