Calgary byelection winner says anti-Stelmach feeling on doorsteps key to victory

EDMONTON — A shocking byelection loss by Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives may not topple the party, but observers said Tuesday it certainly kneecaps Premier Ed Stelmach.

EDMONTON — A shocking byelection loss by Alberta’s long-governing Progressive Conservatives may not topple the party, but observers said Tuesday it certainly kneecaps Premier Ed Stelmach.

Tory candidate “Diane Colley-Urquhart took the bullet, but this was aimed at Ed,” said Duane Bratt, a political science professor at Calgary’s Mount Royal University.

The upstart Wildrose Alliance Party, which has positioned itself as a right-wing alternative to the right-of-centre Tories, won the byelection Monday in Calgary-Glenmore, a Tory riding since the party took power in 1971.

Candidate Paul Hinman said in an interview it was dissatisfaction with Stelmach on the doorsteps of the riding, even among party faithful, that turned the tide.

“I was talking to strong Tory supporters. They said, ’We need to deal with Ed, but we’ve got to remain loyal (to the party).”’

“I said, ’Well you’ve got to make a choice because if you vote for Diane, it’s a vote for Ed and you’re endorsing his leadership.”’

Stelmach, speaking to reporters in Cardston, Alta., deflected questions on whether the loss reflected on his leadership, saying it simply indicated a broader mandate from voters for a more conservative plan to handle the flagging economy.

“Albertans are clearly anxious about the recession and they want to see us communicating our plan very clearly on how we’re going to deal with it,” the premier told reporters.

“And given that the vote seemed to really move to the right tells me that we’re looking at a more conservative approach to our budgeting processes.”

But the premier did not elaborate on what this conservative approach would mean for the government’s budgeting process.

Hinman won 37 per cent of the 11,028 votes cast in Calgary-Glenmore, an upscale urban riding on the south side of the city, home to the Rockyview Hospital, wilderness trails and sprawling homes of doctors, lawyers and other professionals.

Liberal candidate Avalon Roberts was a close second, with 34 per cent, while Colley-Urquhart, a city councillor, was third at 26 per cent.

The loss still leaves the Tories with 70 seats in the 83-seat legislature, including 17 of 23 in Calgary.

Bratt said the campaign exposed the disconnect between Stelmach, a man of northern Alberta farm roots, and the petro-centric energy capital of Calgary.

He noted Stelmach defeated Calgary’s favourite son, Jim Dinning, to win the Tory leadership and premiership in 2006, then squabbled publicly with Mayor Dave Bronconnier over money to pay for local infrastructure improvements.

“He’s had problems in Calgary almost from the get-go,” said Bratt, noting that local editorial cartoonists draw Stelmach “like a hick with a straw hat and stuff between his teeth.”

“Nobody dislikes Ed down here,” he said. “One of my colleagues said he’d make a good neighbour, help you build a fence, but he doesn’t have that leadership quality.”

The win was a shot of credibility for the Wildrose Alliance, a party that had previously held just one seat in the legislature. It was held by Hinman from 2004-08 in the rural southern riding of Cardston-Taber-Warner, when the party was known then as the Alliance and before it had joined forces with the like-minded Wildrose Party.

The party espouses rightist policies, including further reduction of trade barriers, fixed election dates, recall of politicians, the right of workers to decide if they want to join unions and rules to make criminals compensate their victims.

Hinman, a 50-year-old former southern Alberta rancher and feedlot operator, said the win in an upscale urban riding erases the unfair criticism that the party is a motley collection of narrow-minded ideologues.

“The principles this party is founded on resonate across Alberta. It’s not extreme rural rednecks.”

“This is exciting for Albertans. They’re discovering a new energy source.”

Hinman said voters blame Stelmach for failing to manage an economy that has gone in one year from multibillion-dollar surpluses to a $6.9-billion deficit due to plummeting oil and natural gas prices. Thousands of jobs have been lost and health-care cuts are looming.

Stelmach faces a mandatory leadership review Nov. 6-7 in Red Deer.

Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary, cautioned that a general election is still three years away, and that byelection wins are fickle and unreliable trend indicators.

“In byelections, you kick the tires and you don’t damage the vehicle,” said Barrie.

“I think people are being a bit premature when they see this as the first tremor in a political earthquake that’s going to dispatch the Conservatives and install a new party.”

But, she added, “the Alliance is going to get a big bounce out of this because their leadership race is coming up in October. It’s going to attract more attention.”

Three candidates are vying for the leadership on Oct. 17 in Edmonton, including Danielle Smith, former head of the Alberta wing of the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.

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