Tag Archives: Don Getty

Alberta is always in Tough Economic Times

“They don’t know what to do with tough economic times. It was easy enough to govern when the money was flowing in, when things were going well. They took all the credit for it at that time. It’s much harder to govern, and the mark of a good government is how they handle it, when times get difficult.” – Ray Martin, Leader of the Official Opposition (June 13, 1986)

Jim Prentice Premier Alberta
Jim Prentice

Despite Alberta’s prosperity, Premier Jim Prentice is warning we could be heading into tough economic times. The decline in the world price of oil has spooked the 43-year governing Progressive Conservative establishment and the corporate elites in downtown Calgary.

The perilous “price trough” has led Mr. Prentice to warn of a potential $7 billion revenue shortfall if oil prices remain at lower than expected levels for the entire 2015/2016 fiscal year. According to a government spokesperson, some of the missing $7 billion could come from revenue streams such as land leases, but at this point the number is largely based in speculation and politically spin.

Mr. Prentice’s prophetic $7 billion shortfall becomes more startling when learning the Alberta Government is projected to collect only $7.5 billion in crude oil and bitumen royalty revenue in the 2014/2015 budget year. This projected revenue is based on the price of Western Canada Select (WCS) oil remaining at $77.18 per barrel. Although the yearly average price is $84.02 per barrel the current price of WCS  has dropped to $48.44 per barrel.

Ray Martin NDP MLA School Trustee Edmonton Alberta
Ray Martin

If the “tough economics times” message sounds vaguely familiar, that is because it is. In oil-rich Alberta, we hear a lot from our political leaders about tough economic times, even when times are prosperous. In most cases, our politicians are managing voters’ expectations and positioning themselves to take credit as ‘prudent fiscal managers’ when the world-wide price of oil inevitably increases.

Meeting the Challenge of Tough Times” was the name of the three-year economic plan launched by Premier Ed Stelmach’s PC government in 2009.

Bitumen Bubble Alberta
Bitumen Bubble

The sharp decline of natural gas royalty revenue and that year’s world-wide recession, which felt more like a mild economic pause in Alberta, even convinced the Tories to amend the Klein-era Fiscal Responsibility Act to allow the government to pass deficit budgets.

And in January 2013, Premier Alison Redford used a televised address to warn Albertans that a $8 billion shortfall in the provincial budget was being caused by an ominous “bitumen bubble.” Ms. Redford’s bubble was then used as justification to slash funding to colleges and universities by 7% in that year’s budget.

Alberta Finance Minister Ron Liepert
Ron Liepert

But the PCs have not always predicted “tough economic times.” In 2012, then-finance minister Ron Liepert told the Calgary Chamber of Commerce to expect $16 billion in projected resource revenues by 2015. A huge jump in revenue would certainly increase the likelihood of Mr. Prentice calling a provincial election in early 2015.

Alberta’s government has heavily depended on revenue from cyclically priced resource commodities for decades. After years of unrestrained growth, no one should be surprised that Alberta’s economy could slow down.

The question is how we respond to actual tough economic times in Alberta. Was NDP Official Opposition Leader Ray Martin correct in 1986 when he said that “they don’t know what to do with tough economic times”?

While some right-wing think tanks call for a return to brutal slash and burn fiscal policies, the implementation of real long-term financial planning would probably be a more mature solution.

Alberta Norway Oil Fund Money Savings
Comparing Alberta’s Heritage Fund and Norway’s Petroleum Savings Fund.

Norway, a country with 5.1 million people, invests oil revenues into the Government Pension Fund Global and contains more than $857 billion. The fund was established in 1990 to smooth out the disruptive effects of highly fluctuating oil prices. Oil-rich jurisdictions like Norway prove that economies can be both economically prosperous and environmentally green.

Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed
Peter Lougheed

Alberta, a province of 3.6 million people, launched the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund in 1976. Under the leadership of Peter Lougheed, the Heritage Fund initially received 30% of government resource revenues and was worth $12.7 billion in 1986. The Heritage Fund is now worth only $17.4 billion.

Facing tough economic times in 1987, the PC government of Don Getty halted all transfers to the Heritage Fund. Zero deposits were made between 1987 and 2004.

This week, PC MLAs passed Bill 11: Savings Management Repeal Act, which repealed the Savings Management Act, which was enthusiastically passed by the same group of PC MLAs in March 2014. The earlier bill would have diverted resource revenue to the newly created Alberta Future Fund, Social Innovation Endowment account and Agriculture and Food Innovation Endowment. The bill passed this week eliminates those new funds.

Kevin Taft Liberal Party MLA Alberta
Kevin Taft

Despite talk of revenue diversification, it is questionable whether the governing PCs would seriously consider increasing resource royalties, reinstating a progressive taxation system or introducing a provincial sales tax.

While many politicians view tax increases as politically unpalatable, a slight tax increase would not destroy the our province’s economy. “If Alberta increased its tax rates by $11 billion our province would still have the lowest tax rate in Canada,” Kevin Taft wrote in his 2012 book, Follow the Money.

Dr. Taft’s book breaks down government spending patterns over the past 30 years and details how corporate profits have skyrocketed in Alberta at the same time the PC Government has struggled with deficit budgets.

As a province with decades worth of dependence on revenues from natural resource royalties, it should not be a shock that we need to be smarter about how we plan and finance our government spending. Maybe our only problem is not our over reliance on cyclical natural resources revenues, but that the Progressive Conservatives are just bad fiscal managers.


Primetime Politics this week…
On this week’s Alberta Primetime politics panel, I joined Rob Breakenridge, Roberto Noce and host Michael Higgins to discuss the Gay-Straight Alliance debate, Moe Amery‘s texting-while-driving-demerits bill, and Bill 2: Alberta Accountability Act.

 

Coming Soon: Calgary-Elbow and Edmonton-Whitemud by-elections

Calgary Elbow Map By-Election
The Wildrose Party has described the Calgary-Elbow by-election as “ground zero.”

With provincial by-elections in Alberta’s two biggest cities expected to be called soon, opposition parties are gearing up to challenge two unelected cabinet ministers running under the Progressive Conservative banner.

Dates for the by-election votes have not been scheduled and a third by-election for Premier Jim Prentice is also expected to take place. Mr. Prentice is expected to run in the Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill constituency.

By-elections are risky for incumbent governments, as they give voters an opportunity to send a message without changing government. These votes will provide the first indications whether Albertans are satisfied with Mr. Prentice’s ability to rebrand the scandal-plagued 43-year old PC Party Government.

Calgary-Elbow

Calgary-Elbow Alberta MLA Map By-Election
The results of election and by-elections held in Calgary-Elbow since 2004 (four main parties included, with the Alberta Alliance counted as the Wildrose Party in the 2004 and 2007 votes).

Trigged by the resignation of former Premier Alison Redford, this by-election has been described as “ground zero” by the opposition Wildrose Party. Many of the neighbourhoods in this constituency were devastated by last year’s floods and I am told that many locals remain disappointed with the provincial government’s response in repairing the damage. Not surprisingly, many residents also remain very disappointed with the performance of their former PC MLA.

Newly appointed Education Minister Gordon Dirks, 67, has been acclaimed as the Progressive Conservative candidate. Mr. Dirks is a former Calgary school trustee and Saskatchewan PC MLA. His appointment to cabinet was a surprise to most political watchers.

Conservative activist Pat Walsh had announced plans to seek the PC nomination, but stepped aside last week to clear the way for Mr. Dirks’ acclamation. But this week, in a strange move, Mr. Walsh has endorsed Wildrose candidate John Fletcher.

Mr. Fletcher is a retired Canadian Forces Colonel and is a candidate the Wildrose believes can defeat the unelected Education minister.

The Liberals are looking to candidate Susan Wright to regain some of their former support in Calgary-Elbow. The Liberals won the constituency in a 2007 by-election to replace Mr. Klein, but lost it Ms. Redford the following year. While the Liberals have had a strong base of support in the constituency in previous elections, the party’s support plummeted in 2012. This by-election will test whether Dr. Raj Sherman’s Liberals are a viable political force in Calgary.

This will be Alberta Party leader Greg Clark’s second time running as a candidate in Calgary-Elbow, but this time he will have the support of celebrity political strategist Stephen Carter (formerly of the PC Party) and former Liberal Party campaign manager Corey Hogan. The Alberta Party briefly held a seat in the Assembly before the 2012 election, when former Liberal MLA Dave Taylor, who represented the neighbouring Calgary-Currie, joined their ranks. Mr. Clark hopes that he can become his party’s second-ever MLA.

The NDP have nominated lawyer Stephanie McLean as their candidate. Both of the MLAs in the NDP leadership contest – Rachel Notley and David Eggen – have said that expanding their party’s support in Calgary is key to success. Here is their opportunity to start earning votes.

Sure to cause a stir among die-hard New Democrats is Ms. McLean’s endorsement of popular Liberal MLA Kent Hehr’s campaign to become the federal Liberal candidate in Calgary-Centre.

I am told that the Green Party of Alberta has decided not to run a candidate in this by-election. It is unclear why they are sitting it out.

Constituency Association Net Assets, Calgary-Elbow, 2013
Progressive Conservative: $207,972.97
Wildrose: $72,625.47
Liberals: $540.79
NDP – $0
Alberta Party: $2,465.16

Edmonton-Whitemud

Edmonton Whitemud Map By-Election
A map of the Edmonton-Whitemud constituency.

The PC Party’s longest-held constituency in Edmonton, Edmonton-Whitemud was represented by former Premier Dave Hancock from 1997 until his resignation last week.

Newly appointed Health Minister Stephen Mandel, 69, has been acclaimed as the PC candidate. The former three-term Edmonton Mayor remains popular among many Edmontonians and it is unclear whether he will face any serious challengers.

So far, the only candidate to step up to challenge him is Alberta Party President Will Munsey. An amiable character, Mr. Munsey ran under his party’s banner in the Leduc-Beaumont constituency in the last provincial election and as a Green Party candidate in Vegreville-Wainwright in the 2011 federal election.

Edmonton-Whitemud By-Election
The results of election and by-elections held in Edmonton-Whitemud since 2004 (four main parties included, with the Alberta Alliance counted as the Wildrose Party in the 2004 vote).

The Liberals have yet to announce a candidate, but I am told that the party is working hard to recruit a former Edmonton Liberal MLA to run in the by-election. Similar to Elbow, the Whitemud by-election will test whether Dr. Sherman’s Liberals can regain their former strength in Edmonton.

As far as I am aware, no candidates have publicly declared their intentions to seek the Wildrose or NDP nominations at the time this column was published.

UPDATE: In the comment section of this blog, Dr. Bob Turner announced that he will be the NDP candidate in the Edmonton-Whitemud by-election.

Constituency Association Net Assets, Edmonton-Whitemud, 2013
PC = $32,366.72
Wildrose: $4,486.82
Liberal – $1,528.40
NDP – $286.77
Alberta Party: $1,171.76

Alberta politics fact: While located in two different cities, the constituencies of Calgary-Elbow and Edmonton-Whitemud both include some of Alberta’s wealthiest neighbourhoods. Both have also been represented by two Premiers (Elbow by Ralph Klein and Ms. Redford, and Whitemud by Don Getty and Mr. Hancock).

When is the next Alberta election?

Alberta Legislature 2014

With the governing Progressive Conservatives selecting their new leader in September 2014, there is growing suspicion that Albertans could be going to polls sooner than expected. While Alberta’s next strange “three-month fixed election period” is not until 2016, a loosely written law may allow the next premier to trigger an early election.

According to Section 38.01(2) of the Elections Act, the next election should take place between March 1 and May 31, 2016, but under 38.01(1), the Lieutenant Governor retains the authority to dissolve the assembly and call an election when he sees fit. This would typically occur when a government loses confidence of the Assembly or when the leader of the government asks him to do so (it would be highly irregular for the Lieutenant Governor to deny this request).

By my reading, what the Elections Act really says is that the next election must be held by May 31, 2016, but it could easily be held before that date. And I bet it will be.

An election in 2015

An early election would allow the next PC Party leader to seek a new mandate from Albertans, highlight new candidates and purge his caucus of deadwood and troublesome MLAs. With expected growth in resource revenues next year, it will be very tempting for the PCs to call an election after tabling a cash-rich provincial budget in Spring 2015.

An early provincial election could also conveniently rid the PCs of three potentially embarrassing by-elections in constituencies soon-to-be vacated by MLAs seeking federal party nominations (these MLAs are Len Webber in Calgary-Foothills, David Xiao in Edmonton-McClung, and Darshan Kang in Calgary-McCall).

A Jim Prentice By-Election

If the next PC leader is Jim Prentice, who currently has endorsements from 45 of 58 PC MLAs, a by-election would need to be held to provide the new Premier with a seat in the Assembly. In the past, when a party leader does not have a seat in the Assembly, a sitting MLA has resigned in order to trigger a by-election.

When Premier Don Getty was chosen as PC leader in October 1985, Edmonton-Whitemud PC MLA Robert Alexander resigned so that the new premier would win a by-election in December 1985. Mr. Getty later won a May 1989 by-election after he was unseated in the March 1989 General Election.

The Social Credit Party formed government in August 1935 without its leader on any ballot. Seatless Premier William Aberhart ran and won a by-election in November 1935.

Wild rumours suggest that Mr. Prentice could wait until the next election to win a seat, perhaps running against popular Liberal MLA David Swann in Calgary-Mountain View (where Mr. Prentice was defeated in the 1986 election). But it is unlikely that he would wait that long or risk challenging a popular incumbent.

It is more likely that Mr. Prentice would follow tradition and quickly seek to run in a by-election. It is plausible that former Premier Alison Redford would resign as MLA to trigger a by-election in Calgary-Elbow.

Opposition Parties gearing up

The Wildrose Party already has candidates preparing to contest nominations across the province. The party has attracted an early high profile candidate in Sherwood Park, where former Strathcona County mayor Linda Osinchuk has announced she will seek the Wildrose nomination. In anticipation of an upcoming by-election, retired Colonel John Fletcher is seeking the Wildrose nomination in Calgary-Elbow.

The NDP will nominate candidates Shannon Phillips in Lethbridge-West and Chris Nielsen in Edmonton-Decore on June 17, 2014. The NDP was the first party to nominate a candidate for the next election months ago when Lori Sigurdson was chosen in Edmonton-Riverview.

While no Liberal candidates have been officially nominated, MLAs Laurie Blakeman, Kent Hehr and Mr. Swann have all indicated they plan on running in the next election.

To keep track of party nominations, I have compiled a list of official and unofficial candidates planning to stand in Alberta’s next provincial election. Please feel free to contact me if there are additions to the list.

And then there were three (white men)

2014 PC Leadership Race Alberta Thomas Lukaszuk Jim Prentice Ric McIver
Alberta PC Party leadership candidates Thomas Luksazuk, Ric McIver and Jim Prentice.

As the deadline for candidates to enter their names (and $50,000 fee) in the contest to become the next leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Association came to a close yesterday, three politicians have put forward their names – bank vice-president and former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice and former provincial cabinet ministers Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk.

A quick glance at the names of the three candidates confirms that no women or visible minorities have entered the race to fill the position vacated by Alberta’s first woman premier, Alison Redford, who was pushed out of office only a few short months ago. A few woman candidates were rumoured to be interested, but the most high profile of those rumoured, Energy minister Diana McQueen, declined to run, choosing instead to endorse Mr. Prentice.

While Canada reached a high-water mark in recent years, with women occupying the premiers office in six provinces and territories, the number has plummeted after recent elections. Today, only British Columbia and Ontario have women premiers (and Ontario voters will decide the fate of Premier Kathleen Wynne’s Liberals on June 12, 2014).

Alberta could once again enter this category if Official Opposition leader Danielle Smith leads her Wildrose Party to win the next election. Edmonton MLA Rachel Notley is said to be considering a run for the Alberta NDP leadership and some say she would become an instant front-runner if she enters the race.

All three PC leadership candidates have cut their political teeth in Alberta’s largest cities. Mr. Prentice was the Member of Parliament for Calgary-Centre North from 2004 to 2010, Mr. McIver as a Calgary MLA, former Alderman and mayoral candidate, and Mr. Lukaszuk as the MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs since 2001.

The presence of three urban candidates signals both the growing political importance of the province’s two largest cities (and the urban agenda’s put forward by popular mayors Don Iveson and Naheed Nenshi) and the PC Party’s weakness in rural Alberta.

Not having a candidate from rural Alberta is embarrassing for the 43-year governing party. Once almost universally dominated by PC MLAs, the Tories have seen their support plummet in rural and small-town Alberta over the past four years. In the last election, many PC MLAs, including a some senior cabinet ministers, were handily defeated by Wildrose candidates in rural constituencies that had voted enmasse for the PC Party for more than three decades.

This is also the smallest number of candidates to participate in a PC leadership race since the party chose Don Getty as leader in 1985. In 1992, there were 9 candidates; in 2006 there were 8 and the 2011 leadership race attracted 6 candidates.

The small-number of candidates is a testament of the internal turmoil in the PC Party following the coup d’etat that caused Ms. Redford’s departure and the strength of Mr. Prentice’s campaign. Whether it is perceived or real, the ‘Team Prentice’ brand quickly drew the support of more than twenty PC MLAs and an army of party insiders and political consultants.

Unlike the deflated front-runners in previous PC leadership campaigns – Jim Dinning and Gary Mar – Mr. Prentice has succeeded in scaring away most of his credible potential challengers. Whether he suffers the same fate as these former ‘front-runners’, who were later defeated by underdogs, is yet to be seen.

The challenge for the three candidates will be to generate interest in a campaign that already feels like it is a forgone conclusion (a victory by Mr. Prentice). A big question is whether the any of the candidates in this race will be compelling enough to convince those thousands of ‘two-minute Tories‘ to lend them their votes.

Tories hope for a Hancockian era of stability

Alison Redford Dave Hancock Alberta Premier
Outgoing Premier Alison Redford with incoming Premier Dave Hancock.

On March 20, 1989, Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives were re-elected with a majority government but Premier Don Getty was defeated by voters in his Edmonton-Whitemud constituency. It was a stunning embarrassment for the then 18-year governing PC Party.

Alberta Premier Don Getty
Don Getty

Twenty-five years later, on March 20, 2014, Alberta’s still-governing PCs selected Edmonton-Whitemud MLA Dave Hancock to serve as Premier of Alberta until a replacement could be chosen for the embattled departing Premier Alison Redford.

Mr. Hancock was president of PC Party during the dying days of Mr. Getty’s premiership, when it appeared as though the Tories would be defeated by the Liberals led popular former mayor Laurence Decore.

Mr. Getty’s resigned in 1992 after being dragged down by low public approval ratings and a disgruntled caucus. A divisive leadership race chose his successor, Ralph Klein, who soon after led the Tories to win a majority government in the 1993 election. Tory partisans of a certain age fondly refer to this period as “the miracle on the prairies.”

Mr. Hancock’s experience as party president during the early 1990s and his 43 years of involvement in the province’s natural governing party could help him calm the dissent in the unwieldy PC caucus.

Facing increased pressure from the opposition Wildrose Party, the next four to six months will be an incredibly important time for the Tories, as the upcoming leadership race will define the PC Party in advance of a fast approaching 2016 election.

The parallels between the early 1990s and today are not perfect, and perhaps not even fair, but they serve as a reminder about the ability of the PC Party to reinvent itself. Even at its most damaged and divided, as it appeared to be this week, the PC Party remains a political force to be reckoned with.

Neala Barton Redford Press Secretary
Neala Barton

Redford press secretary returns to Toronto

Ms. Redford’s resignation has  resulted in the departure of many of her senior staff from the Legislature. The now-former press secretary to the premier, Neala Barton, appears to have already landed a new communications job in Toronto with the scandal plagued Pan Am Games Committee. Before joining Ms. Redford’s staff last year, Ms. Barton had previously served as press secretary for Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty.

FAQ: Alison Redford faces PC Party leadership review

Premier Alison Redford Alberta
Alison Redford

Hundreds of supporters of the long-governing Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta will gather in Red Deer on November 22 and 23, 2013 to attend to the business of their annual general meeting and conduct a review of Premier Alison Redford leadership.

Why does a leader who nineteen months ago led her party to its 12th consecutive electoral victory have to face a leadership review?

Because it’s mandatory.

Article 15.1 of the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta constitution states “At the second Annual General Meeting of the Association following a Provincial General Election where the Party forms the Government or at the first Annual General Meeting of the Association following a Provincial General Election where the Party does not form the Government, a secret ballot on leadership review shall be held.”

Who gets to vote?

Members in good standing of the PC Party and duly registered delegates who fall into one of the following categories:
– members of the PC Party Board of Directors
– 15 delegates from each of the 87 PC Party constituency associations (which must include a minimum of 3 youth delegates between the ages of 14 and the end of the calendar year in which they reach 26 years old)
– 20 youth delegates appointed by the Progressive Conservative Youth of Alberta, and 2 youth delegates who are full-time students from every accredited post-secondary education institution on which a PC campus club exists,
– current and past PC Members of the Legislative Assembly,
– PC candidates nominated to run in an upcoming provincial election,
– past presidents of the PC Party,
– 5 directors and up to 30 deputy directors of the PC Alberta Fund,
– PC Senators and Senators-in-Waiting,
– Conservative Party of Canada Members of Parliament from Alberta.

Why are Conservative Party of Canada MPs invited to vote in the leadership review?

This appears to be a constitutional remnant of a time when the provincial PC Party was officially tied to Progressive Conservative Party of Canada. The federal PC Party merged with the Canadian Alliance in 2003 to create the Conservative Party of Canada.

At the PC Party’s 2012 annual general meeting, delegates voted on a constitutional amendment to remove the automatic privileges of federal Conservative Party MPs and party activists at participate in provincial PC annual meetings. While the two parties have unofficial connections, friction over federal Conservative support of the Wildrose Party in the last election created a rift between the two parties. The amendment was partially approved, with Conservative MPs still being automatically invited to attend but the automatic invitation for federal Conservative riding associations to each send 15 delegates to the PC Party AGM was removed from the constitution.

What are delegates being asked to vote on?

Article 15.4 of the PC Party constitution states that the ballot shall contain the question: “Do you wish a Provincial Leadership Election to be called?”

What happens if delegates vote for a leadership review?

If a majority of ballots are marked in the affirmative, the PC Party Board of Directors shall proceed to call a provincial leadership election.

How would a new leader be chosen?

According to Article 14 of the PC Party constitution, a leadership election must be held not sooner than four months and not later than six months from the date of the leadership review.

Members in good standing of the PC Party who are Canadian citizens, at least 14 years of age and residents of Alberta for at least 6 consecutive months immediately prior to the leadership election are eligible to vote.

When the leadership election is held, the candidate who receives more than half the total valid ballots cast shall be declared the leader. If no candidate receives a majority of votes on the first ballot, a second ballot will be held with the two candidates who received the most votes. This is different from previous PC leadership votes where the three candidates with the most votes moved the the second ballot. This created situations where, in 1992, 2006, and 2011, the candidate with the most votes on the first ballot did not win on the second ballot.

Will Ms. Redford survive the leadership review?

While Ms. Redford has her detractors in her party and caucus, I believe the prospect of a majority of delegates voting for a formal leadership race is unlikely. As far as I am aware, no leader of a major Canadian political party has earned less than a majority vote in an internal leadership review (please correct me if I am wrong). But if a leadership race is called for, it would certainly be interesting to see if Ms. Redford followed her in the footsteps political mentor, Joe Clark, in contesting a leadership race.

After more than 40 years as the governing party in Alberta, the PC Party has proven its ruthlessness towards its leaders. Remember that even Premier Ed Stelmach won a resoundingly strong endorsement from his party membership after the 2008 election. But when the party establishment sensed his leadership could hurt the party’s electoral fortunes, he was challenged from within and he quickly announced his departure in 2011. Premier Ralph Klein‘s 13 year tenure as leader of the PC Party came to an abrupt end when he received a shockingly low 55.4% support in that party’s 2006 leadership review. And in 1992, Premier Don Getty chose retirement before he was forced to face any large scale internal dissent in his party and caucus ranks.

Peter Lougheed appears to be the only leader of the PC Party in Alberta who has retired from politics on his own accord since that party first formed government in 1971.

A weak endorsement of the current leadership would certainly be good news for the tire kickers in the PC Party who would like to see Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk or Finance Minister Doug Horner have an opportunity to lead. But if delegates endorse the current leadership, as most political watchers are predicting, the potential challengers may have to cool their heels for at least the next few years.

Twenty years since Alberta’s epic 1993 election.

Colleen and Ralph Klein (screenshot from CBC news archive)
Colleen and Ralph Klein (screenshot from CBC news archive)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of Alberta’s 1993 election, known in Tory political circles as “the miracle on the Prairies” and to others as the election that interrupted the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals (in which the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Wayne Gretzky-led Los Angeles Kings). This election was Alberta’s most competitive in decades and saw the 22 year governing Progressive Conservatives led by former Calgary Mayor Ralph Klein face-off against the reenergized Liberals led by former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore.

The Tories emerged as the victors of the closely fought election, successfully distancing themselves from the unpopular former Premier Don Getty, who Premier Klein had only replaced the year before the election. Significant retirements of long-time Tory MLAs brought a new batch of candidates on “Ralph’s Team” to compete with an impressive and well-funded slate of Liberal candidates.

Hoping to ride the wave of electoral discontent that the Reform Party would ride in the federal election later that year, the Liberals challenged the Tories on many traditional conservative issues and attracted some social conservative candidates who might not find a natural home in the Liberal Party. A few of these successful social conservative Liberal candidates, including Edmonton’s Julius Yankowsky, would later cross the floor to the Tories.

With both the PCs and Liberals campaigning on fiscal conservative platforms geared toward eliminating budget deficits and paying down debts, there may have been less policy difference between the two parties than could normally be expected.

Laurence Decore (screenshot from CBC news archive)
Laurence Decore (screenshot from CBC news archive)

Similar to last year’s provincial election, where a “Lake of Fire” helped cost Danielle Smith‘s Wildrose Party more than a few votes in  closely fought campaign, a controversial social issue played a defining role in the 1993 election. Political scientist Peter McCormick wrote in the Canadian Annual Review of Politics and Public Affairs, 1995, “…it was generally agreed the Liberal leader Laurence Decore’s causal raising of the abortion issue was one of the reasons his party lost the 1993 provincial election.”

On June 15, 1993, Premier Klein’s PC Party was re-elected with 51 seats out of 83 and 44% of the provincial vote. Premier Klein would lead his party through three more election victories before he retired in 2006. Winning every seat in Edmonton and a handful in rural Alberta, Calgary and Lethbridge, the Liberals elected 32 MLAs and earned 39% of the provincial vote.

A number of Tory stalwarts, including Bonnyville‘s Ernie Isley, Leduc‘s Donald Sparrow and St. Albert’s Dick Fowler were unseated by Liberal candidates. A Liberal candidate was even successful in capturing Calgary-West, the coveted constituency represented by Premier Peter Lougheed from 1967 to 1986. The Liberals have never again come this close to forming government in Alberta.

Ray Martin (screenshot from CBC news archive)
Ray Martin (screenshot from CBC news archive)

Led by Edmonton-Norwood MLA Ray Martin, the official opposition New Democrats lost the 16 seats they had won in the previous election. Electoral boundary redistribution, retiring incumbents, and the defection of Stony Plain NDP MLA Stan Woloshyn to the Tories did not help. With a rise of support for the Liberals in Edmonton and the Tory’s new popular leader Premier Klein, the NDP were abandoned by many of their traditional supporters in this election.

Watch this archived CBC news report on the 1993 election (points to anyone who can name the journalist narrating the CBC report).

The confusing reinvention of Alberta’s Natural Governing Party.

Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk and Premier Alison Redford at Duchess Bakeshop in Edmonton.
Culture Minister Heather Klimchuk and Premier Alison Redford at Duchess Bakeshop in Edmonton.

Success comes with challenges, and for Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, forty-two years of electoral success has come with its own unique set of challenges.

One of the PC Party’s biggest successes has been its ability to reinvent itself over its more than four decades in power. It is sometimes difficult to explain to someone from outside Alberta how the same party has been led by the very different leadership styles of Peter Lougheed, Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach, and now Premier Alison Redford.

What does today’s version of the PC Party stand for? I am not sure its leaders have a clear idea what the latest reinvention embodies.

Alberta's new political map after the 2012 election (map from Wikipedia).
Alberta’s new political map after the 2012 election (map from Wikipedia).

While Premier Redford’s clear focus has been on the international stage, her government has presented a confusing domestic agenda.

The PC Party under Premier Redford claims to be progressive (though it fights with unions, and has made deep funding cuts to post-secondary education and support for persons with developmental disabilities). The PC Party under Premier Redford also claims to be conservative (despite running deficit budgets).

Confusion appears to be another challenge of being the Natural Governing Party.

The PC Party is also less of a real political party and more of an amorphous blob that exists to sustain power.

Recognizing the need to connect with its base of activists ahead of November’s leadership review vote, Premier Redford announced at last weekend’s party policy conference in Edmonton the formation of new committees that will help connect party policy with the government’s agenda. This is a tricky goal to accomplish, as the PC Government is expected to represent all Albertans, not just those who hold a membership with the Premier’s political party.

This is also not the first time the PC Party has boldly attempted to make party membership relevant outside of leadership races or nomination contests. In the early 2000’s, Premier Klein commissioned numerous initiatives with his party’s base of activists to try to reengage with them. The success of those particular initiatives was questionable.

Following last year’s election, the latest reinvention of the PC Party is largely urban-based and faces a rural-based official opposition. The PC Party’s recent attacks on the Wildrose Party’s more extreme social conservative-base, which until recently played a significant role in the governing coalition, have demonstrated that Alberta’s Natural Governing Party might not be sure what its latest reinvention is, it is starting to show what it does not want to be.

ralph klein is alberta’s sad story.

Ralph Klein
Ralph Klein

I was born in Edmonton in 1983 and the first Premier I remember being aware of was Ralph Klein.

Having grown up during the Klein-era, I have a different perspective of those years than most mainstream political pundits and their baby boomer cohort. I have mixed feelings about the announcement today that the former Premier will be receiving the Order of Canada, the highest honour in the land.

There is no argument against his ability as a politician to appeal to an incredibly broad cross-section of society in Alberta. He led the Progressive Conservatives to win four back-to-back majority governments and reached his political pinnacle in 2001 by winning 74 of 83 constituencies and 61% of the popular vote. He was beloved by many Albertans, but he was a larger than life personality that even he was not able to live up to in the end.

Perhaps helping shape some of my own political orientations, my formative memories of Premier Klein were not positive. I remember listening to my parents and grandparents (who are retired teachers) talk about the short-sightedness of Premier Klein’s decision to lay-off tens of thousands of public servants, nurses, and teachers across the province. As a politically interested kid, I remember watching the television and seeing a jovial political leader. I would wonder, “how could he be so bad?

At the time Conservatives and many Liberals rallied against the perceived excesses of previous PC governments and jubilantly cheered the cuts. Over time, it would become apparent that Premier Klein’s tenancy to lead the populist mob translated into very poor long-term planning. Walk through any hospital today and you will almost immediately become aware of an incredible generational gap in the nursing profession in Alberta. An entire generation of health care and education professionals were told that Alberta was not the place for them.

In 2001, I graduated from high school and soon began my post-secondary career. Over the years, I sat in many dark and dingy Arts lecture theatres that had suffered from many years of deferred maintenance and cutbacks at the University of Alberta. Overcrowded classrooms, less one-on-one time with instructors, and increasing tuition – it was clear that the financial cost and quality of my post-secondary education were not connected. Despite this, I carried on and my academic career was strengthened and enriched by a handful of hard-working and dedicated professors.

While my classmates and I worked part-time jobs and accepted the necessity of student debt while continuing our studies, Premier Klein was accused of having plagiarized large portions of an essay written for a distance learning course through Athabasca University. Despite absolute irrefutable evidence that he had copied sections of the essay directly from the Internet, Premier Klein was cleared of the accusations and received a mark of 77% from the University. The Presidents of the Universities of Alberta and Calgary even wrote letters to the editors of the province’s major daily newspapers defending the Premier. I doubt either of them would have jumped to my defence had I attempted to plagiarize an essay.

While his tendency to overindulge in alcoholic beverages was well-known, and treated as a joke among Albertans, the ugly side of Premier Klein’s substance abuse problem reared its head in 2001. Intoxicated, the Premier had his driver stop at an inner city men’s shelter in Edmonton where he berated a homeless man. He held a sober media conference the next day and promised to clean up his ways.

In 2006, Premier Klein only narrowly won a leadership vote by members of his party. An endorsement of only 55% was a stunning blow to the once seemingly invincible politician. PC Party members sent a clear message that King Ralph had outstayed his welcome. When Ed Stelmach was selected as leader of the PC Party later that year, Premier Klein left the crowd of PC Party members in attendance with only a few flat and unceremonious words that seemed to only take 30 seconds to deliver. That was it. He had entered the Premier’s Office with a bang and left with a whimper.

I am not completely sure what he did when he left politics in 2007. I know he was hired as a business advisor at a law firm, was a one-time gameshow host and a some-time journalism instructor. Unlike his immediate predecessors, Peter Lougheed and Don Getty, he did not have a career or a profession to return to.

He is now suffering from a severe form of dementia.

His supporters will praise the myth of the man, but when you take a closer look at Ralph Klein’s time as Premier, his quickly becomes a sad story.

forty years of political hegemony over alberta.

Calgary Herald August 31, 1971 Peter Lougheed Alberta Election Now
The cover of the Calgary Herald on August 31, 1971.

Forty years ago today, Albertans voted to end the 36 year rule of the Social Credit League and let the light shine as Peter Lougheed‘s Progressive Conservatives scored their first majority election victory and Albertans voted to adopt Daylight Savings Time.

The August 30, 1971 election saw the Lougheed Tories edge out Premier Harry Strom‘s Social Credit by a narrow vote (296,934 votes to 262,953 votes) that was not reflected in the number of MLAs each party elected (49 PC MLAs and 25 Social Credit MLAs). The NDP also landed their first solid beachhead in the Assembly with the election of leader Grant Notley in the northern Spirit River-Fairview constituency. The only party leader to not win a seat in the Assembly was Liberal leader Bob Russell, who placed third in St. Albert.

Since that day forty years ago, the PC Party has won nearly every general election with ease. With the exception of the 1993 election, where the Liberals led by former Edmonton Mayor Laurence Decore appeared to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory against rookie Premier Ralph Klein, the PCs have thrown every opposition leader into a meat grinder.

The PCs have not survived as one of the most successful political organizations in Canada by being nice guys. While driven by a vague set of principles, Alberta’s natural governing entity is essentially an amorphous blob on the subject of policy, following trends and public opinion – straddling the ideological centre while appeasing the various corners of its very large political tent. This positioning has allowed the PC Party to appeal to a wide-range of Albertans, who already largely self-identify as “conservative.” Being the sure bet for an election win has also helped the PC Party recruit talented candidates from across the political spectrum and build strong (and well-funded) local organizations across the province.

The PC Party is also ruthless on the subject of keeping its hold on power. As PC members vote select a new leader on September 17, 2011 it may be smart for the leadership candidates to reflect on the historical fact that only one PC leader, Premier Lougheed, was allowed to leave gracefully on his own time. Each leader following Premier Lougheed – Don Getty, Ralph Klein, and Ed Stelmach – were in one way or another shown the door when they appeared to be a threat to the PC Party’s continued political success.