This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
It’s not just Guy Boutilier.
Mr. Boutilier is the Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo backbench MLA who was kicked out of the Alberta Conservative caucus July 17 by Premier Ed Stelmach. But Mr. Boutilier’s battle with the premier was just one shot in a bigger war with much higher stakes.
Mr. Boutilier’s ostensible sin: speaking up frankly on behalf of his constituents about the government’s decision to indefinitely postpone construction of a seniors’ continuing-care facility in his riding. He was pretty blunt, accusing Health Minister Ron Liepert of “talking gibberish” for suggesting there is no urgent need for seniors’ care in a youthful town like Fort Mac.
No sooner was Mr. Boutilier skidded than the premier’s propaganda machine went into overdrive, doing its best to paint him as isolated, selfish and arrogant, a renegade angry because he failed to land a cabinet post. He was also portrayed as a whiner, desperate to be readmitted to caucus. Chances of this happening, the premier suggested, are less than zero.
This portrayal is not entirely convincing. Mr. Boutilier was certainly proud of his Harvard masters degree – a fact that may have made low-achievers in the Stelmach cabinet uncomfortable. But it defies credibility that a politician with a dozen years’ experience in the Legislature, who held important portfolios in premier Ralph Klein’s cabinet, would not have understood the implications of what he was about to do.
Mr. Boutilier’s frank comments and the premier’s graceless response, firing him over the telephone, exposed one crack in the façade of the seemingly monolithic Alberta Conservatives. But Mr. Boutilier’s remarks – and the positive public reaction they received after he was fired – are evidence that Premier Stelmach’s position is more precarious than should be expected for a leader with such a massive majority in the House.
Mr. Stelmach’s problem is that he’s the candidate most of his party didn’t really want – the compromise who “rode up the middle” in 2007 when stronger contenders stalled out. He seems indecisive. He takes harsh positions to prove he’s not – rolling back booze taxes or firing Mr. Boutilier.
Fact is, significant numbers of Conservative MLAs, especially those from sophisticated urban ridings or associated with other leadership candidates, are growing restive with the way the premier runs his government.
Many were embarrassed by Bill 44, legislation allowing religious crackpots to opt their children out of the provincial education curriculum. Others, some quite conservative in their economic views, are nevertheless worried about the political implications of the premier’s stubborn refusal to raise taxes during a recession.
So if Mr. Stelmach thinks firing Mr. Boutilier solved his problem, he should think again. Mr. Boutilier was just the lightning rod for a bigger storm that’s brewing. While Mr. Stelmach’s anonymous foes within his own party are happy to let Mr. Boutilier take the hit for now, they’re sharpening their knives.
They’ll unsheathe them in November, when the Conservatives hold their 2009 convention in Red Deer. Mr. Stelmach’s enemies are beavering away behind the scenes, trying to ensure results of his mandatory leadership review by delegates are not too enthusiastic, unlike the 90-per-cent endorsements routinely received by King Ralph through most of his reign.
Their target: a vote below 70 per cent – call it “the 67-per-cent Solution” – that would set the stage for Mr. Stelmach to go gently into that good night and some other Conservative with more charisma and public appeal to float to the top.
Needless to say, Mr. Stelmach and those who benefit from his leadership will not let this happen without a bitter fight.
So don’t expect the apparent demise of Guy Boutilier to be the last interesting Alberta political story of 2009.