EDMONTON — Premier Ed Stelmach’s leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives was top of mind as elected members returned to the assembly for the fall sitting.
Sustainable Resources Minister Ted Morton told reporters on his way into the chamber Monday that it would be a mistake to dump Stelmach when the Tories hold a leadership review vote next week.
It would be a bigger mistake to plunge the party into a leadership contest at this point, said Morton.
“So I’m encouraging my constituents and all PCs to vote against a leadership review on Nov. 7,” he said.
There’s been widespread speculation that Morton, who lost the 2006 leadership race to Stelmach, has been waiting in the wings in case grumpy Tories push Stelmach aside.
But Morton laid those rumours to rest Monday with his first public comments on the mandatory leadership review that Tories hold after every general election.
“What we need to do is focus on policy and win back those wavering Conservatives that are looking at the (Wildrose Alliance Party),” he said.
“The last thing we need is a leadership review.”
Several high profile Tories have been suggesting recently that it’s time for Stelmach to step down.
Former premier Ralph Klein said last week that he felt Alberta’s business leaders were ready for a change in the Tory leadership.
Former cabinet minister Ernie Isley went a step further and joined the upstart Wildrose Alliance, which recent polls suggest has been siphoning support from Stelmach’s Tories.
But in the last week, several senior Tory party members have come out in support of Stelmach.
Former premier Peter Lougheed has given the premier his endorsement. Former cabinet minister Jim Dinning, who was also a leadership contender in 2006, also rejected a leadership change.
But Stelmach still has detractors both inside and outside the legislature.
Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith stood on the steps of the legislature Monday and challenged the Tory government over its fiscal policies.
“When you look at the budget over the last year going from an $8 billion projected surplus to a $7 billion projected deficit, I think we need to see more conservative budgeting,” said Smith.
“I don’t see any evidence that they know what to do going forward.”
Smith and others are also taking aim at legislation that will empower the cabinet to approve billions of dollars worth of electrical transmission lines.
Energy Minister Mel Knight told reporters Monday that these lines are essential for Alberta’s future power needs and the cost to consumers is relatively low at roughly $8 per month.
“What would you suppose the cost would be if (the power system) failed?” said the minister. “And it’s not fear-mongering. The truth is the system hasn’t had upgrades for 20 years.”
But Smith said consumers could end up facing much higher costs on their utility bills if the new power lines are approved.
“It’s going to be an incredibly costly process to build $20 billion worth of new transmission lines,” she said. “It will add $200 to the average consumer’s electricity bill.”
“These are not decisions that should be made by cabinet,” she said. “I think Bill 50 is heading us in the wrong direction.”
Stelmach faced a barrage of questions in the assembly on planned bed closures in both hospitals and the province’s largest mental health facility.
He accused the Opposition of trying to twist the facts about his government’s health-care agenda.
“All I’m saying to all Albertans is we’re firmly committed to publicly funded health care,” said Stelmach. “It’s the best system ever.”
“Why tear at each other? Let’s work together and make sure that system is here for the next generation.”
Stelmach will face health-care protests at his party’s annual general meeting next month in Red Deer, where Tories will vote on his leadership.
Friends of Medicare announced Monday that a coalition of groups will be staging a rally outside the Tory gathering.