EDMONTON — Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach faces a critical leadership review this weekend by his own Tory party members amid growing tension within the ranks.
Stelmach’s plunging popularity in recent polls has caused two former premiers to make rare public statements both for and against his continued leadership.
Former premier Peter Lougheed says the Progressive Conservative party needs to rally behind Stelmach.
“We’re into very challenging times right now in the Alberta economy and it’s very important that the party be supportive of their leader,” said Lougheed, who led the Tories to power in 1971.
In contrast, former premier Ralph Klein said recently that he felt Alberta’s business community was ready for a change in leadership. Klein told The Canadian Press last month that Stelmach should “step down” if he doesn’t get at least 70 per cent support in the leadership vote.
Klein was forced to resign as premier in 2006 after he received only 55 per cent support in a leadership review.
Alberta’s Tories hold the votes in the year after a general election.
Stelmach has politely rejected Klein’s benchmark, but refuses to say how much support he feels he needs to continue as party leader.
“It’s in the hands of the delegates,” he said Thursday. “This is a difficult time with the recession and how that reflects.”
The premier dismissed poll results which continue to show the Wildrose Alliance Party — a right-wing upstart which currently holds only one seat in the legislature — gaining ground on his Tories.
“The most important poll is election day and that will be March 2012,” he said.
Stelmach has faced a pile of nagging controversies, most recently over the province’s swine flu vaccination program.
Some of the harshest criticism of Stelmach is coming from Calgary, especially from people in the energy sector who are angry over increases to Alberta’s oil and gas royalties.
Grumbling started over huge lineups at clinics in Edmonton and Calgary and grew louder when they were temporarily closed last Saturday because of a vaccine shortage.
That was followed by a huge public outcry over news that the NHL’s Calgary Flames jumped the queue and were immunized against the H1N1 virus while members of the public stood in line for up to six hours.
Hal Walker, former chairman of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, has been a key player in the Tory party for 37 years. This fall, he blew a gasket over his growing frustration with Stelmach’s leadership.
“We have seen the devastating effect of that royalty restructure,” Walker wrote in a September email to 200 business leaders and Tory bigwigs. “Would you people please wake up!”
Stelmach’s office responded by inviting Walker to a meeting in Calgary that the premier did not attend. But Walker says nothing has changed in the two months since he wrote his scathing email.
“I speak to people from across the province and they’re concerned about (Stelmach’s leadership). It’s not just in Calgary,” Walker said in an interview.
“Right now, I’m very, very concerned about where the Conservative party is going. I don’t know if I’m a lost soul or what I am.”
The pressure Stelmach is facing seems out of sync given that he won 72 of 83 seats in last year’s general election.
Still, a member of Stelmach’s election team says there’s a growing buzz among delegates that they want to send the premier a message of discontent.
“It’s even louder than in 2006 when many delegates voted against Klein,” said the Tory insider, who asked not to be identified.
Another Tory strategist said anti-Klein votes in 2006 were organized by party members who felt that he had overstayed his welcome as leader.
“This time the dissent is not organized, which makes it even more dangerous,” said the veteran Tory, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity.
Alberta’s Tories have gone up and down in the polls over the last four decades, but have never faced a serious challenge from the right.
The Wildrose Alliance was buoyed by a byelection victory in Calgary in September. The party won a seat that the Tories had held for 40 years.
Danielle Smith, a former journalist and small-business advocate, won the leadership of the party last month and is touring the province to garner support.
Smith says she heard during a recent visit to northern Alberta that many Tories are frustrated and looking for a new party.
“I think regardless of what number Mr. Stelmach gets on the weekend, we’re going to continue to see that momentum coming our way,” she said.
Behind the scenes, Stelmach’s allies have been marshalling dozens of youth delegates to cast their votes in support of the premier.
“It sounds like we’re going to have a record number of youth, which is very exciting for a party,” Stelmach mentioned this week.
Party executive-director Jim Campbell confirms that 200 of the roughly 1,300 Tories voting this weekend will be youth delegates.
Campbell has said that the secret ballot will be unbiased.
The slogan organizers chose for the leadership review is: “Now More Than Ever.”
It’s the same slogan that Republican President Richard Nixon used in his successful 1972 re-election campaign after his approval rating had fallen below 50 per cent the previous year.
Nixon won a landslide against Democrat George McGovern, but resigned two years later under the threat of impeachment for his role in the Watergate scandal.