Have the wheels already come off Gary Mar’s campaign to lead Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party, or is he just taking a little heat right now because he’s the front-runner?
The 48-year-old Calgary-born lawyer’s campaign got off to a bumpy start last Wednesday – delayed by unco-operative weather and a few grumpy reporters determined to ask embarrassing questions about his long-ago role in Alberta’s long-running health care soap opera.
That’ll all be forgotten in a few days if the media moves on to another issue or another story diverts its attention, as can easily happen. With a little luck for Mr. Mar, all that potential supporters and voters will remember about his March 16 campaign launch is the big crowd and the presidential trappings of the news conference.
Still, the auguries are unprepossessing.
For starters, and this is purely anecdotal, there seems to be a widespread attitude out there that as health minister in premier Ralph Klein’s cabinet in the late Nineties and early Zeros, Mr. Mar owns a little piece of the crisis the health care system is now going through.
This is especially so as some of the allegations of intimidation and payoffs at the Capital Health Region made by Independent MLA and former Tory Parliamentary Assistant for Health Raj Sherman date to Mr. Mar’s tenure as minister. For his part, Mr. Mar brushed aside Dr. Sherman’s claims as the posturing of a politician who is now candidate for the leadership of the Alberta Liberals.
OK, but it’s surely not a good sign when rank-and-file voters respond to Mr. Mar’s suggestion that he is offering something different from the accident-prone government of Premier Ed Stelmach by saying they think he had a role in creating the problem.
Nor is it a good thing for a one-time cabinet favourite of Mr. Klein that it finally seems to be sinking in with the public that the former premier was not just a good ole boy you’d like to have a beer with, but a destructive politician who did far more harm that good to the province of Alberta.
This one was a Calgary Herald story referring to the $478,499 MLA severance payment Mr. Mar was entitled to receive when he left office in 2007, and discreetly took a little while later, and the suggestion he was “double-dipping” by immediately going to work as the Alberta government’s Man in Washington.
This is a vulnerability Mr. Mar does not share with any of the other declared candidates – former finance minister Ted Morton, former deputy premier and advanced education minister Doug Horner, former justice minister Alison Redford and Battle River MLA Doug Griffiths – by merit of the fact they’re all still MLAs.
One supposes some sharp young reporter might ask them what they expect their payout to be when they depart, and whether they intend to take it. (The answer in all cases, presumably: A lot, and, yes.) But, really, thinking about something just doesn’t have the impact of having done it, no matter what it says in Matthew 5:28!
Back in 2007, the Herald reported on Friday, Mr. Mar said he would defer taking the severance payment while he was in his $264,000-a-year post as Alberta’s “minister-counsellor” and official tarsands pitchman in Washington, D.C.
“But government documents show he took the severance in the 2008-09 fiscal year, early on in a Washington job he started in December 2007,” the Herald said, coming to the conclusion that while Mr. Mar was legally entitled to the payment and didn’t break any rules, “spending watchdogs and opposition MLAs are accusing Mar of double-dipping on the taxpayer dime in a move loaded with poor optics and ethical issues.”
Yikes! This is not the kind of news coverage a candidate for a job that will automatically make him premier of Alberta wants to hear!
And this story is not going to go away, especially since Wildrose Alliance MLA Rob Anderson – one of last year’s Tory defectors and a politician who is turning out to be a natural for an opposition role – has really got his teeth into it.
However, that won’t be enough to upset Mr. Mar’s applecart as long as nothing else emerges to embarrass him. For this reason, the Mar campaign would be well advised to ask a certain former ministerial aide, recipient of a controversial payment of his own, to stay the heck away from their candidate’s campaign events.
If Mr. Mar does falter again, that raises the interesting question of whom among the other candidates is most likely to benefit given that he will nevertheless go into the race as the front-runner with many supporters and a highly professional campaign staff.
If, as seems likely, the race is defined as a battle between the left and right – that is to say, the right and the farther right – Prof. Morton will be cast as the standard-bearer for the far-right hardliners. So both Mr. Mar and Dr. Morton can be expected to do well on the first ballot.
Which means the Conservatives very well could face exactly the same situation as they did in 2006, when the virtually unknown Mr. Stelmach emerged as winner, a scenario in which a next available credible candidate “rides up the middle” to victory.
This is something the party presumably hoped to avoid, given its experience with Premier Stelmach. But here we are again … maybe, anyway.
While Mr. Griffiths lacks the needed experience – not necessarily a disadvantage, but just saying – either Mr. Horner or Ms. Redford could play this role with considerably more credibility than did Mr. Stelmach.
This post also appears on rabble.ca.