At the risk of sounding crude, how screwed is Ted Morton? Alberta’s finance minister, hard-right-fiscal hawk and would-be future premier finds himself trapped between a Big Rock and a hard place.
Having rolled the dice in early January 2010 to stick with the then-still-seaworthy Conservative government under the leadership of Premier Ed Stelmach instead of joining the defectors to the Wildrose Alliance, and later having announced he’ll seek re-election in the same riding as Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, he can hardly reverse course now.
As a reward for his loyalty, on the Ides of January 2010 Premier Stelmach assigned the far-right PhD “Calgary School” political economist the important finance portfolio. Now, Mr. Stelmach has his weaknesses as premier, and in retrospect may have been the wrong choice for the Conservatives, but notwithstanding that he is no dummy. The premier surely had more than an inkling he was handing his once and possibly future challenger a poisoned chalice.
From Dr. Morton’s perspective at the time, the Conservative option must have seemed the best way to satisfy his soaring ambition. He’d already made a respectable showing in the 2006 Progressive Conservative leadership contest that Mr. Stelmach won to almost everyone’s astonishment – including his own, presumably. Moreover, by 2010 Mr. Stelmach’s leadership appeared precarious.
The hyper-conservative Dr. Morton must have calculated that it was only a matter of time before he could brush aside his few remaining Red Tory competitors in Mr. Stelmach’s caucus and assume his rightful position as Alberta’s premier. From there, he could lead the province into a new place so far to the right even his former Firewall Manifesto signatory Prime Minister Stephen Harper wouldn’t recognize it.
From the perspective of January 2011, such a calculation seems clouded, dependent on three uncertain factors:
First, Dr. Morton had to balance the provincial budget. The need for a balanced budget is an article of religious faith to Alberta’s right. Accordingly, it has been repeatedly promised by everyone in Mr. Stelmach’s caucus. To fail to deliver opens Dr. Morton to a natural and effective attack from the Wildrose Alliance under former Fraser Institute apparatchik Smith, who has positioned her party even further to the right than Mr. Stelmach’s Tories.
Second, at some point Mr. Stelmach had to recognize the inevitable, from Dr. Morton’s perspective, and step aside to let the future unfold as the god of Alberta’s Conservatives obviously intended.
Third, of course, Dr. Morton had to be able to get re-elected.
Alas for Dr. Morton, at this point, none of those conditions – which a year ago must have all seemed possible – appears realistic.
For one thing, it is increasingly doubtful the budget can be balanced by 2012 without politically catastrophic results that Mr. Stelmach would never countenance. The whole house of cards depended on an increase in natural gas prices that has failed to materialize.
Alberta’s budgets are founded on high natural gas prices, not sound stewardship or sensible taxation. So without an increase in the price of a commodity that is outside Alberta’s control, there is no choice but to run another deficit or suffer the political consequences of the brutal cuts that would be required to balance the budget. Say what you will about Mr. Stelmach, he is not so ideologically pure he would adopt such a self-destructive course.
Of course, Dr. Morton has already brought in a deficit budget, in February 2010. But he could plausibly make the argument that one was someone else’s budget, and that he only took over mid-stream. As they say, however, that was then and this is now.
The implication was clear at the time that with a fiscal conservative like Dr. Morton at the Finance Department’s helm, a deficit wouldn’t happen again. Well, it surely will, and Dr. Morton must pay the political piper.
Have no doubt that Dr. Morton is now making the argument behind the closed doors of the cabinet room that the next budget must be balanced. You can be equally sure that there is no way Premier Stelmach will permit him to do so.
Without balancing the books, all Dr. Morton can do is get on his knees and pray to God that natural gas prices will rise before the next election – an eventuality made increasingly unlikely as new supplies of shale natural gas come on stream back home in Dr. Morton’s native United States.
As for Mr. Stelmach, if Alberta’s premier is anything, he is a stubborn survivor. Will he step aside to make way for a former challenger like Dr. Morton or anyone else? Unlikely. The probability is high that Mr. Stelmach will lead his Conservatives into the next election, probably in 2012, just as he promised. He could just win, and therefore feel that he has been vindicated. Win or lose, there is nothing here for Dr. Morton.
Finally, it is no longer even likely Dr. Morton can be re-elected. Analysis of polling data suggests he would be defeated by the Wildrose Alliance in his Foothills-Rockyview riding. This is why, of course, he has announced he will challenge Ms. Smith in Okotoks-High River, a hard place that is home of a famed Big Rock, and where the current Conservative MLA is expected to step down. Wildrose Alliance insiders boldly predict they will beat Dr. Morton wherever he runs, and it would be a foolish punter who bets against them.
All of this leaves Dr. Morton with very few options, none of them good.
He can grit his teeth and bring in a deficit budget, then suffer defeat at the hands of the Wildrose Alliance in the fiscally conservative heartland where he has chosen to fight.
He can resign his ministerial post “on principle” for not being allowed to take the measures necessary to balance the budget. This would reveal him as disloyal to his leader in a crisis, likely making him unwelcome in either Conservative or Wildrose circles after the election.
He can leave politics entirely and return to hyper-right-wing bloviation in taxpayer-supported academia or at some far-right “think tank” in the United States or Canada.
In other words, no matter what he does, the future looks bleak for Ted Morton.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.