Tories face leadership fight that will ultimately define them

After getting knocked for a loop last week, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives now awake to a potentially divisive leadership race, but one that will ultimately decide what they stand for, say political scientists.

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach

EDMONTON — After getting knocked for a loop last week, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives now awake to a potentially divisive leadership race, but one that will ultimately decide what they stand for, say political scientists.

“This is a party at a crossroads,” says Doreen Barrie, a political scientist at the University of Calgary.

“What they’re now faced with is whether they really are a right-wing government.

“And they’ll be defining themselves ideologically as a right-wing government if they go with Ted Morton.”

Morton, the 61-year-old finance minister and staunch fiscal conservative, was the first cabinet minister last week to quit his portfolio and sign up for the race to replace outgoing Premier Ed Stelmach.

Stelmach, just three years removed from a massive majority election win, shocked his caucus on Tuesday when he said he will resign after the spring session.

Reports say that Stelmach, saddled with a low popularity rating and a surging rival in the Wildrose Alliance, was getting heat from insiders to pull the plug, and that the last straw came when Morton threatened to resign rather than back another deficit budget.

Morton mocked those reports, but didn’t specifically deny them either, and two days later he did indeed resign. The race could be deja vu for the PCs.

Morton ran in 2006 in the race to replace Ralph Klein as premier, and it was fear that Morton would marginalize the party by taking it to the far right that sparked a push by moderates to elect Stelmach.

Political scientist Keith Brownsey says a lot has changed since then.

The Alliance is threatening to usurp the Tories as Alberta’s traditional fiscal conservatives.

They have an effective leader in Calgary businesswoman Danielle Smith and an organizing team composed of many former Tories.

The Alliance has just four members in the 83-seat legislature but is matching the Tories in public opinion polls.

“People in the Conservative Party are scared of them,” says Brownsey, with Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“They figure they’re going to be outflanked on the right and want to move their own party there.”

Brownsey says it’s clear the 67-member Tory caucus is divided and that Morton can capitalize.

“Morton has his lists ready. He’s got a skeleton organization. He’s got a lot of support out there in the party,” Brownsey says. “He’s good to go.”

The Progressive Conservatives have been in power for 40 years and have existed as a big tent party of red Tories and conservative hardliners.

Barrie says while they’re Conservative in name, they actually — save for the budget slashing of the early Klein years in the 1990s — have behaved more like left-centre parties with interventionist policies and big-spending budgets.

Political scientist Harold Jansen agrees.

“I’ve increasingly come to see them as analogous to the role of the federal Liberals, the big party that sat in the centre more or less. A coalition,” says Jansen, with the University of Lethbridge.

Brownsey said the presence of the Wildrose Alliance will benefit Morton in a leadership race because of the implied threat that if Morton doesn’t win, his supporters may bolt to the Wildrose.

Jansen, however, says there may not be as many Morton supporters to begin with, given many left after 2006 to join the Alliance.

“Now you have a group of political elites — including Danielle Smith — who have a vested interest in this new political organization they’ve made,” says Jansen.

“They don’t want to see Morton succeed. They want to see their party succeed. That vote is organizationally split, if not ideologically split.”

Other cabinet ministers, including moderates such as deputy premier Doug Horner and government house leader Dave Hancock, are weighing a run at the top job.

Stelmach has said that any minister who wants to run must give up the cabinet job to prevent a perceived conflict of interest.

Brownsey says that means key policy decisions will likely get put on hold until the Tories figure out who’s in charge.

“As Albertans we will pay for this confusion. Things simply won’t get done. No decisions will be taken,” he says.

“It’s like government on hiatus.”