Cock of the walk: Everybody wanted to talk to Ted Morton on June 26, 2011. His message to then-premier Ed Stelmach: Balance the budget or else. (Calgary Herald photo.) Below: Alison Redford, Rob Anderson.
Can it be less than two years since Ted Morton, then Alberta’s steely-eyed finance minister and hard-right fiscal hawk, was poised to become premier himself?
Readers with long memories will recall how Dr. Morton had in January 2011 just stuck the knife into then-premier Ed Stelmach. Dr. Morton wanted a painfully instant balanced budget that Mr. Stelmach was too smart or too humane to accept. When he didn’t get his way, he quit – precipitating the crisis that led to Mr. Stelmach’s resignation.
Oh how the winds of change were blowing then! Dr. Morton was The Man, the cock of the walk, the tight-fisted front-runner in the then-nascent Progressive Conservative leadership race. He was the self-described leftists’ nightmare, an American-born “right-winger with a PhD” – his thesis dissertation in “political economy” assailing the U.S. Supreme Court for its “confused understanding of the relationship between sexual equality and the family.” He was the guy who as soon as he was in the top job would reunite the PCs and the Wildrose Party into a neo-Con monolith that would turn the screws on Alberta till the pips squeaked!
With Dr. Morton ensconced in Edmonton, and his fellow Firewall Manifesto signer Stephen Harper entrenched at 24 Sussex, well, things were gonna move so far to the right you wouldn’t recognize them all over again!
Now it’s June 2012. Alberta has a new premier, its budget is balanced (or, “essentially balanced” as the finance minister explained yesterday), and happy days are here again, just as Dr. Morton promised they would be.
The only thing is, the premier is Alison Redford – avatar of the Red Tory wing of the PC Party who back in January 2011 wasn’t even considered an also-ran by the provincial commentariat. Doug Horner, another leadership candidate whom those supportin’ Morton disparaged as even redder than Redford, is now the finance minister. And balancing the budget barely required a single howl of pain!
The annual financial statements published by the Redford Government yesterday show the province had only a $23-million (that’s million, with an M) deficit last year, way down from the $3.4 billion deficit predicted in the spring of 2011.
This just isn’t the way the narrative – carefully crafted by the skilful mythmakers of the right – was supposed to unfold. Who could have predicted this? (I mean, other than me.)
Once Dr. Morton was out of the leadership race, the storyline of the majority of pundits, pollsters, think-tankers, neo-Con federal politicians and even a few gullible bloggers quickly changed direction.
This time Danielle Smith’s right-fringe Wildrose Party – Dr. Morton has been accurately described as its “intellectual godfather” – was said with one voice to be poised to sweep Ms. Redford and her PCs from power. Once again, Albertans were about to hear the satisfactory sound of pips squeaking, and possibly some civil servants too.
But that didn’t happen either. And, oh, how the mighty have fallen! There was a little miracle on the Prairies, but not one the Fraser Institute can celebrate with any enthusiasm. On election night 2012, April 23, the Wildrose Party didn’t have as much to celebrate as it had hoped. But it did knock off Dr. Morton.
How could this have happened – other than Ms. Redford having turned out to be the sharpest knife in Mr. Stelmach’s kitchen cabinet, running a brilliant leadership campaign followed by an election campaign that was either brilliant too or the closest run thing since the Battle of Waterloo?
The way Mr. Horner explained it yesterday, the government managed to bring in $3.6 billion more revenue than it expected, mostly from the province’s booming natural resources sector.
This makes the Wildrose Party’s complaints last week that the province is in big, big trouble and really ought to be squeezing the juice out of the public service sound plain silly. Wildrosers have been reduced to complaining that the government’s predictions are too optimistic, which, face it, wouldn’t make voters lose much sleep even if there were an election any time soon. And there isn’t.
Seeing as accounting is more art than science, the only mystery about yesterday’s announcement is why the government reported a statistically meaningless $23-million deficit at all, instead of just declaring the budget balanced. This gave Wildrose Finance Critic Rob Anderson the opportunity to grump: “It shows that you can win the Lotto 6/49 and still not balance your budget.”
The answer, of course, is that Ms. Redford will hold off the glorious balanced budget announcement for a couple of years, when she does have the prospect of an election breathing down her neck again. Until then, as NDP leader Brian Mason expressed it yesterday, “the government’s got horseshoes in their pants.”
But if Ms. Redford and her colleagues have horseshoes in their pants, someone else doesn’t. That’d be Ted Morton.
There may be no place he’d rather call home than Alberta, but expect this far-right fiscal hawk to fly away greener pastures in the land of his birth, perhaps at some think tank where he can explain to his heart’s content why his new audience just can’t afford good public services until the budget has been balanced.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.