Premier Ed Stelmach and his political advisors would like you to believe that the economy is at the root of all the troubles faced by the Progressive Conservative party of Alberta.
The premiers of Saskatchewan and British Columbia share the same corner of the country, the same corner of the world, the same ideological views, and essentially the same economy as Premier Stelmach, yet they don’t attract the near universal opprobrium faced by their colleague in Alberta.
Despite having powerful and well-organized political opponents on the left, neither Mr. Wall’s Saskatchewan Party nor Mr. Campbell’s Liberal Party (both of which occupy essentially the same place in the political spectrum as Mr. Stelmach’s Conservatives) face the deep distrust or rapid decline in popularity experienced by the government of Alberta. Indeed, Saskatchewan voters in particular seem to be in love with Mr. Wall right now.
It’s a lucky thing for them, too, seeing as there’s a functional NDP opposition in both provinces that voters recognize as a potential alternative government, if not the government in waiting just now.
If the troubles of Premier Stelmach and his Conservatives were simply a voter reaction to a slackening economy, one would think that Messrs. Campbell and Wall, and indeed all other Canadian premiers, would face similar difficulties. Yet pretty well everyone else, with the sole exception of Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty, a Liberal, is doing just fine in the polls, thank you very much.
Nor did a slackening economy particularly trouble the Alberta Conservatives in the first months of Mr. Stelmach’s leadership, before it began to sink into the Alberta electorate’s consciousness just what kind of a leader Mr. Stelmach is.
The Great Recession is generally agreed by economists to have begun toward the end of 2007, gathering intensity in the fall of 2008. This certainly had no harmful effect on the fortunes of the Conservatives under Mr. Stelmach in March 2008, when they won a landslide in the provincial general election.
A variety of polls generally remained positive for Mr. Stelmach through most of the rest of 2008, even as the economy turned south. Indeed, the troubles experienced by Mr. Stelmach’s government have seemed to intensify as the economic picture showed signs of brightening.
So, pretty clearly, notwithstanding the arguments of Mr. Stelmach’s inner circle that it’s “not our fault,” the economy in isolation can’t be blamed for the premier’s difficulties in public perceptions, or for his party’s seeming declining fortunes in the polls.
If it’s not the economy, the most obvious suspects for the premier’s difficulties are the government’s mishandling of the health care file under former health minister Ron Liepert, ably assisted in this enterprise by Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, and the premier’s own apparent inability to lead effectively.
Electorates can sniff out uncertainty and confusion in a leader like a dog can scent fear. Tough talk and fear of flip-flops don’t much help. This is Mr. Stelmach’s principal problem now – the electorate has moved to the conclusion he is not up to the job, and there is not much he can do to convince them otherwise. For good or ill, the Great Unwashed has made up its collective mind, and Mr. Stelmach is no longer receiving the benefit of the doubt.
While we don’t yet have the polls to back up this conjecture with scientific evidence, it seems likely that even the replacement of the rash and inflexible Mr. Liepert with the clearly much more politically adept Gene Zwozdesky as health minister is not going to solve the Conservatives’ principal political problem. That’s because that problem has a name, and its name is Ed Stelmach.
Alberta’s Conservative party has deep roots among the provincial electorate and a strong infrastructure of well-connected loyalists in every riding. It has plenty of talent within its Legislative caucus and outside.
Despite the remarkable rise of the Wildrose Alliance party under Danielle Smith, it seems likely that with the right leader, the Conservatives could sweep the Alliance from the board everywhere outside the Calgary region, and maybe there too.
Who is the right leader? Almost anyone except Ed Stelmach! Does anyone seriously think that Ms. Smith could successfully challenge a Conservative Party led by, say, Deputy Premier Doug Horner or someone from outside the Legislative caucus like Jim Dinning?
Last fall, the Conservative party gathered in convention in Red Deer and decided that the best thing for everyone was for Mr. Stelmach’s leadership not to be challenged. Even the ghosts of landslides past, like Peter Lougheed himself, materialized one last time out of the mist to tell the party faithful to stick with Mr. Stelmach.
But that was then and this is now. Ms. Smith must get down on her knees every night and pray that the Conservatives stick with that foolish and misconceived plan.
Because it is increasingly obvious to everyone else that if the Conservative slide is to be reversed and the Tories are to return to their accustomed role as Alberta’s Natural Governing Party, Mr. Stelmach is going to have to go.