Alberta’s Conservative cabinet is a trainwreck

Sometimes, it seems, when things start going sideways, there’s just no way to get back on course.

Sometimes, it seems, when things start going sideways, there’s just no way to get back on course.

It’s been that kind of spring for Alberta’s beleaguered Conservative government, where the only kind of luck they’ve been having in the past few weeks is bad. Sadly, much of the “bad luck” is of their own making, as this directionless crew lurches from crisis to crisis, like a car with no hands on the wheel.

The driver should be Premier Ed Stelmach, who, nearly half-way through his first term, is finding that his cabinet is going maverick with fearful regularity.

A painfully nice guy, the shy and socially awkward premier seems to lack the killer instinct needed to strike fear in his team to keep them in line. In turn, they are slowly eating him alive.

The latest faux pas comes from Lindsay Blackett, who, as a black Canadian, should be a poster boy for his Culture and Community Spirit portfolio. He’s been musing about overhauling Alberta’s archaic human rights legislation since November. But, even as Blackett was vowing to bring the province’s zealous human rights tribunals to heel, Stelmach authorized a 25 per cent increase in funding to the organizations.

Either the premier wasn’t listening to what Blackett was saying, or didn’t care. Either way, two different tunes were coming out of Edmonton.

They were many other such missteps over the past few weeks that have embarrassed the province locally and on the world stage. Perhaps the most embarrassing was the revelation that a provincially paid rebranding campaign for Alberta included a picture of two children running along a beach . . . in Northumberland, U.K.

As one angry taxpayer declared: “With a $25-million budget, you’d think you could actually do a photo shoot within our beautiful province.”

Chagrined, Stelmach was forced to step forward and apologize on behalf of his bureaucrats and – in a laughable understatement – concede “we need to be more diligent.”

Meanwhile, at about the same time, the premier was forced to apologize to opposition parties who were kept out of a government press conference a day earlier.

“I don’t know what happened yesterday,” he conceded – a stunning admission that the premier doesn’t have both hands on the reins.

NDP Leader Brian Mason, Liberal Leader David Swann and Lethbridge-East Liberal MLA Bridget Pastoor were all stopped from entering Government House as Health Minister Ron Liepert announced details of a new seniors’ drug program.

Liepert, no doubt, is not happy about having to back-peddle. The announcement he blocked the opposition from hearing was of a softening of guidelines after seniors’ groups protested how much they would have to pay under a pharmaceutical program he first announced in December.

It’s another blow to the credibility of Liepert, who has fueled the fires of opposition through his ham-handed attempts to put health care reform back on the front burner.

The list of missteps seems to be developing as painfully and irrevocably as watching a train wreck in slow motion. Stelmach’s well-rehearsed response is contrition and apology.

Owning up to one’s shortcomings is not a bad thing, but the sickening frequency of these major faux pas has made the Stelmach regime vulnerable to accusations of ignorance and arrogance. Worse, one recent blogger wrote: “Alberta politics is a farce. Enough of this overt display of incompetence by the Tory government.”

With each new week there seems to be a new trip-up: Recently, the Conservatives introduced four changes to Bill 19 – the land assembly law – which rural Albertans saw as a direct attack on their property rights.

Where the Tories once had a lock on rural voters, this latest initiative has rural voters seeking out alternatives both on the left (the Liberals) and right (Wildrose Alliance).

Each of the incidents, taken alone, would be manageable, but the cumulative effect is killing the Tories’ credibility.

The legal mandate to govern is granted in the ballot box, but the moral authority to govern must be one in the hearts of the constituents. It is accepted wisdom that Alberta’s Conservatives won the last election not because they were the favoured choice, but because no opposition party was able to present itself as a viable alternative.

Being the least bad option has meant that Stelmach – the up-the-middle third choice for leader in the 2007 contest – has been fighting a honeymoon-free struggle from the day he took over the keys.

Bad luck? A famous American slogan variously attributed to Gary Player, Samuel Goldwin and Thomas Jefferson states, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.” With the luck the Alberta Tories are having, it appears nobody’s been doing much work at all.

Still, until the opposition can mount a serious threat, even these disasters may not be enough to unseat the Conservative regime.

The Liberals are looking for a bounce from newly minted leader David Swann, a bright and sincere man of principle. But history is not on the Liberals’ side.

Turning voter dissatisfaction into election results is daunting challenge, no matter how much Stelmach and his Keystone Kabinet try to help.

Doug Firby writes for Troy Media Corporation.

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