This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
Former premier Ralph Klein mischievously opined recently that to survive politically Premier Ed Stelmach needs an approval rating above 70 per cent at the Progressive Conservative leadership review Nov. 7 in Red Deer.
Another news item told how Klein’s dear old dad was so impressed by Danielle Smith he joined the Wildrose Alliance. Now she’s the leader of the upstart party widely touted as a supposedly credible challenger to Stelmach.
“Ed Stelmach, you haven’t even begun to imagine what’s about to hit you,” a triumphant Smith told 400 or so supporters after winning the Wildrose leadership Oct. 17.
For his part, Stelmach had a lousy summer and fall. Determined opposition to his policies in education and health care, an embarrassing by-election loss to Smith’s Alliance and sinking public opinion polls were followed by a faltering performance when he tried to explain it all on television. Even his symbolic pay cut turned into an embarrassment when it turned out it was based on creative arithmetic.
Enemies within his own party are reported to be circling, ready to chop him down to size in Red Deer. Four to 10 of his caucus members are rumoured to be ready to bolt for the Wildrose ranks.
So here’s a prediction: When the votes are counted in Red Deer, Stelmach will have an approval rating better than 90 per cent. He will emerge stronger than ever.
Why? Because Stelmach is tougher than he looks. He may be the compromise who rode up the middle to become premier in 2006, but once in power, he surrounded himself with determined loyalists who won’t see him undermined without a serious fight.
What’s more, premiers have tremendous power in our Parliamentary system – including the power to fire caucus members. Fort McMurray MLA Guy Boutilier learned this the hard way when he crossed swords with the premier.
And face it, government is government, with positions, perks and promotions. Opposition is only opposition, no matter how fetching the leader. In the end, the only MLA likely to scoot to the Alliance is one miserable Liberal soured on that party’s leader.
Meanwhile, back in Red Deer, count on Stelmach’s allies to ensure loyal proxies are lined up to vote the right way in place of any delegate who fails to show. Expect many Tories fed up with their leader to approve his performance anyway “for the good of the party” in the face of the Wildrose challenge.
Longer term, the corporations that finance both the Conservatives and the Alliance will not tolerate a rift on the right that could let a centre-left coalition form a government. They’ve made their point about Stelmach’s effort to raise hydrocarbon royalties. Soon they’ll demand reconciliation.
Finally, Alberta’s rural ridings remain solidly Conservative, strongly behind Farmer Ed. The Wildrose Alliance may make inroads in conservative urban ridings, especially in Calgary, but it’s doubtful they can budge Stelmach in the countryside.
By the way, don’t put much stock in the myth that new Alberta political movements every so often emerge from the right to sweep tired old governments away. It’s a false reading of history.
In every case, the great upheavals in Alberta politics came from the left – and the governments that came to power moved back to the right over time. When elected, the United Farmers of Alberta were to the left of the Liberals, the Social Credit movement was far to the left of the UFA, and Peter Lougheed’s Conservatives were to the left of Social Credit.
Fanciful interpretations of history, media love affairs with new faces and idle speculation don’t change this fact: the political graveyard of Alberta is littered with the bones of politicians who underestimated Ed Stelmach.