EDMONTON — Premier Ed Stelmach will face some grumpy party veterans, including at least one former cabinet minister, when 1,500 Alberta Tory delegates vote next month to decide whether he should continue to lead the party.
It’s an unlikely scenario for a premier who took the reins in 2006 and whose party captured 72 of Alberta’s 83 seats in last year’s election.
But Stelmach’s popularity seems to have waned recently, not only in Calgary — where the party finished third in a byelection last month in a riding it had held for 40 years — but in some rural areas, too.
Ernie Isley, a former Tory agriculture and public works minister who served 14 years in the legislature through the 1980s and early 1990s, recently abandoned the Conservatives out of frustration and joined the Wildrose Alliance, the fledging party that has emerged as the biggest threat to the Tories’ conservative base.
Isley is the mayor of Bonnyville, in an area of northeastern Alberta where Stelmach drew his strongest support when he won the leadership contest to replace Ralph Klein as premier.
He gets to vote in Stelmach’s leadership review Nov. 7 in Red Deer as a former Tory member of the legislature.
“Eddie’s a nice guy, I’ve always liked him, but I think he might be getting in a little over his head,” says Isley, adding he’s not alone in leaving the party.
“I’ve talked to three or four that have either gone that way or are thinking seriously about it,” he says, while refusing to disclose their names.
“I think Eddie’s got some soul-searching to do if he wants to get some of us back in line.”
Stelmach dismissed concerns about his leadership when talking to reporters in Edmonton last week, saying he had his naysayers back when he was first chosen leader but the government ended up with more Tory seats in the legislature after the last election.
“You’ve got to do what you have to do. Sometimes it’s not popular,” Stelmach said.
“We’ve got to work together as Albertans, we can’t work apart. We start pulling at each other, there’s other people gaining ground and we don’t want to lose ground to any province, any jurisdiction in Canada.”
In Calgary, the main cause for resentment is the government’s move to boost energy royalties, which dried up already uncertain investments in oil and gas exploration — resulting in lost jobs and a sour business climate.
Alberta’s largest city was once a Tory stronghold. But over the last year or so it has become a place where the premier’s leadership is openly questioned by his own party members. The Tory candidate who finished third in the recent Calgary byelection, which was won by the Wildrose Alliance, avoided even mentioning Stelmach’s name during the campaign.
Isley is not the only high-profile Tory going on the record with complaints about Stelmach’s leadership.
Hal Walker, a former chairman of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, sent an email recently to about 200 business leaders and Tory insiders that sent shock waves through the party.
“We have seen the devastating effect of that royalty restructure,” Walker wrote. “I don’t know what Albertans need to do to get (Stelmach) and his cabinet and caucus to listen.”
“Would you people please wake up!”
Stelmach made it clear recently that he’s prepared to punish his detractors severely.
Kyle Fawcett, a backbencher from Calgary, broke ranks the day after the byelection loss. He said Stelmach had done very little to instill confidence that he has the leadership capabilities to lead the province.
Retribution was immediate. Word surfaced a few days later that Fawcett had lost an opportunity for a lucrative appointment to the government’s powerful Treasury Board.
The most glaring example was the ouster of 12-year veteran Guy Boutilier from the government caucus. The backbencher from Fort McMurray complained that the government was foolish to delay plans to build a $50-million long-term care facility in his riding.
Many Tories were upset with the way Stelmach ejected Boutilier from caucus without a hearing.
Isley is among them.
“I wasn’t happy with the way Boutilier was treated.”
The economic situation in Alberta is not helping matters. The economy is faltering due to the recession and plunging energy prices.
The premier has been hunkering down with his cabinet, trying to figure out how to cut $2 billion from a record $7-billion deficit by next year. Cuts already announced include closing hundreds of hospital beds, scaling back long-term care beds and chopping school board budgets.
Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives require a secret ballot be held in the year following every general election to determine if they’re still behind their leader. The importance of these leadership review votes came into focus in 2006 when Klein got 55 per cent support and was forced to resign.
Klein has shied away from talking politics since his retirement, so it came as a surprise when he responded to an email question from The Canadian Press by saying Stelmach needs 70 per cent support or he should step down.
The premier politely dismissed the benchmark set by Klein, but another former Tory cabinet minister says Klein’s assessment is valid.
“Stelmach’s got to get 70 per cent or he’s in a lot of trouble,” says Marv Moore, who served 18 years in the legislature and held five cabinet posts.
“I’m simply amazed at the blunders they’ve made in health care,” says Moore. He was chairman of one of the nine health regions that were dismantled when Stelmach’s government created a single health superboard.
There are plenty of rumours about attempts to influence the vote. Boutilier said he has been getting calls from delegates who are being pressed to support the premier. But he says people don’t like being strong-armed.
“They say, ’Oh yeah, I’m going to support (the premier).’ But they later say he’s going to find out very differently when they go in to vote in the secret ballot.”
“If people think they can manipulate (the vote), then they are very arrogant.”
Jim Campbell, executive director of the Tory party, insists there’s no way anyone can corrupt the voting process. He concedes, however, that people can get emotional as delegates are chosen in each riding by the constituency association executive.
“Sure there’s disputes over who’s on the (voting) list,” says Campbell. “But we don’t interfere in constituency delegate selection processes.”
Political analysts say despite the obvious frustration, they expect the leadership review in Red Deer will simply end up sending a protest message to the premier, not a signal to resign.
“There are certain elements within the party that are distressed over the growing problems that the province faces,” said Keith Brownsey, who teaches politics at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“There may be enough there to at least put a scare into the current government.”