Stelmach government lurches from one controversy to another during spring sitting

EDMONTON — Alberta politicians are preparing to break for the summer, putting the wraps on a spring sitting that saw Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government lurch from one controversy to another.

EDMONTON — Alberta politicians are preparing to break for the summer, putting the wraps on a spring sitting that saw Premier Ed Stelmach’s Conservative government lurch from one controversy to another.

It began with a budget that forecasts a record deficit of nearly $5 billion during the current fiscal year and there’s even more grim news ahead — the government must cut more than $2 billion from it over the next couple of years. So far, no one is willing to say if this will mean job cuts, tax hikes or both.

Despite the financial crisis, the Tories pressed ahead with several bills that drew angry responses or touched off protests, including legislation that some landowners fear will give the government unlimited powers of expropriation.

Alberta will also become the first province to slap criminals with medical bills for injuries they receive or cause either during violent crimes or drunk-driving incidents — a move that was immediately panned as unworkable by Canada’s criminal lawyers.

The province also made headlines by becoming the first jurisdiction in Canada to enshrine the right of parents to pull their kids from classes dealing with religion, sex or sexual orientation. The outrage over these changes to the Human Rights Code was loud and immediate from teachers, school boards, students and even several former Tory cabinet ministers. But the government stuck to its guns, labelling the law “courageous.”

Health care was also a contentious issue this spring and cost-cutting measures drew an outcry from thousands of seniors who faced a doubling or tripling of their group insurance rates. Health Minister Ron Liepert was forced to announce some last minute changes in the face of growing protests.

Liepert also had to do some backpedalling on his decision to remove funding for sex-change operations, resulting in protests by the transgendered community.

Political analyst Peter McCormick says these controversies were embarrassing, awkward and annoying and suggests a lack of leadership by Stelmach, who became premier in early 2007 when Ralph Klein retired from politics.

“With Ralph Klein, you had a clearer message whether you liked it or not,” said McCormick. “I’m still waiting to see what the Stelmach era is supposed to look like. He’s really acting like a drifting caretaker.”

He says a good example of a poorly handled issue was Alberta’s media campaign to improve its global image. Media reports revealed that a photograph being used in the $25-million campaign was actually shot on a beach in England.

The British tabloids were quick to pounce and the Stelmach government swiftly removed it from the province’s website.

“They don’t seem to realize that one headline can undo several million dollars in ads,” McCormick said.

“To the world at large, we are still concerned about evolution and gays, that’s the message we’ve sent.”

Stelmach declined an interview request and a spokesman said the premier would instead take questions about the spring session at a news conference Thursday.

Recently, Stelmach has been pestering Ottawa for help with the province’s financial woes, demanding nearly $1 billion in extra federal cash.

Political analyst David Taras says for two decades Alberta has been gushing in budget surpluses and the Tory government “never had to look back over its shoulder.”

“I mean all of a sudden Alberta becomes poor and the politics changes,” he said. “The shoe really is on the other foot and Alberta has to go cap in hand and this is humiliating.”

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