EDMONTON — Two Tory turncoats are questioning the support that Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach got from his Conservative party members last fall in a mandatory leadership review vote.
Heather Forsyth and Rob Anderson, who joined the rival Wildrose Alliance this week, say government members were told to screen delegates who attended the party’s annual general meeting in Red Deer in November.
“We were told in caucus that we were to vet every single person that was to go to the AGM,” Anderson told a news conference Tuesday.
“And we were told that if they were not the premier’s supporters, then we were to find a way to make sure that they didn’t get in.”
Forsyth says this type of directive had never been given before in the nearly five terms she served as a government member.
Anderson says he was shocked by the strong-arm tactics used by one of Stelmach’s lieutenants, who he would not identify.
“Many of us ignored that, but a lot didn’t and that was one of the many straws to me that said, ’You know what, this is a little Third World.”’
Stelmach ended up getting 77 per cent support from delegates at the meeting.
Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party had dismissed rumours of delegate manipulation prior to the vote on Stelmach’s leadership.
On Tuesday, a senior party official was taken aback by the allegations.
“I have no knowledge of this happening in caucus,” said Pat Godkin, the party’s director of finance. “It would seem unusual, yes.”
Stelmach was on holidays and could not be reached for comment. Officials in his office refused to comment on the allegations.
The premier issued an email statement to Tory party members Tuesday with his first comments on the defections of Forsyth and Anderson.
“Of course I was disappointed when I heard they had decided to leave the PC team,” says the email. “During difficult economic times, it is important to stick together.
“It is the Alberta way. We did it during the Depression in the 1930s and we did it during the dark days of the national energy program.”
Stelmach has repeatedly pointed to the support he got in the leadership review vote as proof that party members are solidly behind him in the face of growing discontent among Alberta voters.
But a recent poll suggested that his Tories are trailing the Wildrose Alliance with two years remaining before the next election. Another poll suggested Stelmach is the least popular premier in Canada.
Political analyst David Taras said the allegations of delegate manipulation could deepen the cracks within the Tory party.
He says this could lead to a major meltdown in the party if grassroots members start to feel that they’ve been manipulated, causing them to lose trust in Stelmach.
“The premier treated (the vote result) as a great victory,” said Taras. “But this opens up the issue and puts another question mark over Stelmach’s head about whether or not the party backs him.”
Guy Boutilier was ejected from the government caucus by the premier last summer after he complained publicly about a funding delay for a long-term care centre in his Fort McMurray riding.
Boutilier, who now sits as an Independent, says he’s got his own questions about Stelmach’s leadership review and how votes were counted.
“How come there were no scrutineers?” he said. “No one can seem to figure out who counted the ballots.
“It’s a sad state of democracy in Alberta, trying to operate a caucus by fear.”
NDP Leader Brian Mason says he believes that most Albertans would find it “unacceptable” that delegates were screened to ensure they would vote against holding a vote for a new Tory leader and premier.
“That doesn’t reflect on the Conservative Party as a democratic institution,” said Mason.