An Alberta without Progressive Conservative leadership is not unthinkable, but it is untenable until there is a legitimate alternative.
That word of caution is directed as much at Conservative party members hankering for a new leader on Nov. 7 in Red Deer as it is at Wildrose Alliance members (and would-be members) jumping on the Danielle Smith bandwagon.
Those other Albertans whose political leanings tend left of Conservative and Wildrose doctrine already know the limits of their aspirations for power. It is a long, arduous road to elect Liberal, New Democrat or Green members of the legislature in this province, let alone elect a government. That won’t change in any significant way without a colossal failure by the more conservative elements in provincial politics.
Albertans have been voting overwhelmingly Tory blue since 1971 without interruption (and before that, the latter years of Social Credit dynasty were marked by similarly conservative management).
We have enjoyed robust economic growth under the careful guidance of Peter Lougheed.
We have suffered well-meaning incompetence at the hands of Don Getty.
We have been badgered and bullied by Ralph Klein.
And now we have the cautious, unimaginative stewardship of Ed Stelmach.
But still Alberta chooses Progressive Conservative leadership.
Why? Progressive Conservatives were well aware of Stelmach’s limitations when they selected him at the leadership convention in the fall of 2006 — but he was the least offensive candidate to the most voters. He wasn’t Jim Dinning. He wasn’t Lyle Oberg. He wasn’t Ted Morton.
And so he became premier, rising from 15 per cent of the vote on the first ballot at the convention to a majority on the final ballot.
In the spring of 2008, Stelmach won a strong mandate in his first general election (72 of 83 seats in the legislature, 10 more than Klein won in his last election), but he did it by attracting just 41 per cent of eligible Albertans to the polls (a record low).
Albertans — and Conservatives — seemed content with his well-meaning manner and his promises of change. So content that they didn’t even bother to vote.
That one key component of the change (oil royalty hikes) coincided with a global economic retreat could hardly have been foreseen.
That another significant component of the change (health reform) is widely accepted as necessary is moot: his means of achieving that change is under a microscope; and because the renovations to the system are being conducted behind closed doors, the motivation is suspect.
Stelmach, in conversation with the Advocate’s editorial board last week, clearly believes he can deliver on any number of fronts.
He is earnest, informed, committed and ready to do battle.
He is well aware that uncertainty lurks in his party, although he is unwilling to discuss what kind of mandate he is likely to receive, or need, at the party leadership review in Red Deer on Nov. 7.
But Stelmach should also be confident that the choices for his party, and for Albertans, are limited. Are Conservatives going to refuse him the necessary vote of confidence in order to look again at Dinning, Morton and Oberg? Are there other leadership hopefuls waiting in the weeds who have the skill, imagination and muscle that Stelmach lacks?
Certainly Albertans should not expect that a Conservative implosion next month will propel the Wildrose forward. Months — and perhaps years — of work must be done in terms of policy formation and the recruitment of credible candidates before the Wildrose Alliance becomes a legitimate alternative for right-tending voters.
Staying the course has risks for the Tories, but Stelmach’s blemishes are obvious and not fatal. Opting for a more dynamic, and more uncertain, future right now could be disastrous for the party and the province.
It would be far better if the Conservatives focused their energies on helping Stelmach understand what Albertans truly want out of government and getting it done.
Put the knives away, get out the shovels and get to work solving Alberta’s problems.
John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.