CALGARY — Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach is promising to budget more conservatively to quell voter discontent over the way the once-booming province’s fortunes have fallen.
Coming off a stinging byelection loss in Calgary-Glenmore Monday to the upstart right-wing Wildrose Alliance Party, Stelmach said his government will rein in spending in the coming months.
“What I read from it is all the votes seem to have gone to the right, so that means that people want to see more conservative budgeting as we prepare next year’s budget,” Stelmach said Thursday. “And they’re going to see that.”
The byelection was won by Paul Hinman, interim leader of the Wildrose Alliance, while the Liberal contender came in second. The Progressive Conservatives came in a distant third after holding the riding for 40 years.
The Wildrose victory has sparked interest in the fledgling party, which is in the middle of a leadership race. A debate by the leadership candidates in Calgary Wednesday drew an overflow crowd of more than 400 people. The party says thousands of new memberships have been sold following the byelection.
Stelmach said he’s not convinced the Wildrose Alliance turnout means his party is losing its more right-wing supporters. He pointed out that some people predicted he would lose ground to the Liberals in the last provincial election but he actually gained seats across the province.
“I pay attention to all opposition parties … but I am focused on leading this province out of some difficult economic times,” he said.
Stelmach made the remarks following the swearing in of Len Webber as Alberta’s new minister of international and intergovernmental relations.
Webber, the son of a popular veteran cabinet minister from the Peter Lougheed era, said he’s heard concerns from people in his Calgary-Foothills constituency about the government’s spending as it faces a projected record deficit of about $7 billion after years of boom-time surpluses.
Most people are willing to accept the consequences that come with less spending if it happens during a recession, he said.
“We have to tighten our belts in these tough times, but we do see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Stelmach didn’t define exactly what more conservative budgeting will entail, but reiterated promises not to demolish health and education services to make up for the budget shortfall.
He defended the government’s decision to close 300 acute-care hospital beds and beds at an Edmonton mental hospital over the next three years to narrow a $1-billion deficit faced by Alberta’s health superboard.
“I have an obligation to ensure that our health system stays publicly funded. I also have an obligation to the next generation that it is sustainable so our children, our grandchildren, can enjoy the health-care programs we have in the province,” he said.