CALGARY — Ted Morton wasted no time as he stepped down as Alberta’s finance minister and launched his campaign to succeed Ed Stelmach as Progressive Conservative leader and premier.
At a news conference in Calgary on Thursday, Stelmach said he has accepted Morton’s resignation because it is appropriate that any cabinet minister seeking his job should leave cabinet.
“I have indicated publicly that it is appropriate for those who declare they are seeking the leadership have a responsibility to resign their cabinet posts,” Stelmach said.
“I respect the decision Ted has made and the principle it represents. Many of you recall that I resigned my cabinet post when I declared my intent for the leadership in 2006.”
Morton’s resignation follows growing tension between the two former leadership rivals over the government’s upcoming budget. Stelmach has said the budget does not contain deep spending cuts to municipalities, health projects, schools or road construction. Morton favoured reining in spending.
Standing with Stelmach at the news conference, Morton said it would have been difficult to remain finance minister and appear neutral while running for party leader. Morton said he is following the example Stelmach set back in 2006.
“At the time I was one of many Albertans who admired the principled position you took. It was the right thing to do then and it is the right thing to do today,” he said. “Under these circumstances I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to continue to discharge my duties as minister with the required perception of impartiality.”
Stelmach has named Treasury Board president Lloyd Snelgrove to head finance and present the budget sometime during the next sitting of the legislature, which is set to begin Feb. 22.
The premier announced earlier this week that he won’t seek re-election, and reports suggest his decision was partly fuelled by a fiscal fight with Morton.
Stelmach has not said when he will submit his official resignation or when the leadership race will begin formally, but he has suggested it won’t happen until after the legislative sitting concludes, probably in early June.
The premier said Morton’s decision to resign does not mean the government is split into rival factions.
“Let me be clear to all Albertans that Mr. Morton supports this government, the provincial budget developed by his department and Treasury Board,” Stelmach said.
“Contrary to the rabid speculation, this does not reflect a caucus divided over the budget or any other issue.”
Deputy premier Doug Horner, Justice Minister Alison Redford and MLA Doug Griffiths are among those who have left the door open to possible leadership bids.
Morton said he is concerned that the growing popularity of the Wildrose Alliance Party could split the right-wing vote in the next election. He said he hopes disaffected voters will return to the “big-tent” Progressive Conservatives.
Fat chance, says Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, a Calgary businesswoman. She called Morton delusional if he thinks her party’s supporters will rejoin the Tories.
Smith said the Progressive Conservatives are in “complete disarray” and she predicted they might even move up an election Stelmach had promised by March 2012.
She is urging members to get more involved in Wildrose activities and to consider making a donation for lawn signs, mailouts and advertising. The next election in Alberta doesn’t have to be held until March 2013.
“Over the next few months, while PC cabinet ministers travel Alberta on the taxpayers’ tab campaigning for the leadership, it is more important than ever for Wildrose to present a calm, confident, and capable alternative,” Smith said.
It’s a critical time for Alberta’s Tories, who are set to celebrate 40 consecutive years in power this year.
They have an overwhelming majority — 67 seats in the 83-seat legislature — but are facing a threat from Wildrose. With just four members in the house, the Alliance — which is committed to fiscal conservativism, balanced budgets and private landowner rights — is in a statistical dead heat with the Conservatives in public opinion polls.
—With files from John Cotter in Edmonton