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Alberta Tories show their age after four decades in power

Posted by mhudema on February 19, 2008

 TheStar.com – comment – Alberta Tories show their age after four decades in power

February 18, 2008


Provincial elections in Alberta are usually predictable affairs; solid Conservative majorities over and over again. It’s been that way ever since Peter Lougheed routed the Social Credit government way back in 1971.

Needless to say, a lot has happened since then. The price of oil has shot from $2.75 a barrel to almost $100. Alberta has become the country’s economic powerhouse. And the Prime Minister now hails from Calgary rather than Quebec.

But despite all the gains made on the Tories’ watch, the provincial election on March 3 may not prove to be as easy for them as past elections. Their age is showing. They’ve been in power now longer than Social Credit; for almost as long as the 42-year uninterrupted reign of the Ontario Conservatives.

Calgary Liberal MLA Dave Taylor put it this way early last week during a candidates’ forum at Mount Royal College: “Thirty-seven years is just too long. These guys are like old hockey players who need to hang up their skates … they’re spent.” Applause rang out; perhaps not surprising given that the Tories came to power long, long before the students in the audience were born.

Former Calgary mayor Ralph Klein saved the day for the party in the 1993 election after a lacklustre performance by Lougheed’s successor, Don Getty. Klein then went on to become enormously popular throughout the province. Albertans of all political tendencies identified with his folksy ways and wacky sense of humour. In many ways the Alberta PC party became “Ralph’s party.” No-name Tory candidates could swing huge majorities simply because they were running for Ralph.

Klein eventually resigned after a party leadership review left him reeling. His successor, Ed Stelmach, has been premier for about 14 months. A soft-spoken farmer and former county reeve who hails from Andrew, a village east of Edmonton, Stelmach tends to stammer and stumble in front of the news media.

He had virtually no public profile before he won the Tory leadership as the compromise candidate even though he was in Klein’s cabinet for 10 years. These days he is quick to distance himself and his government from Klein’s mistakes and missteps.

It may be hard to imagine that given the province’s booming economy, surging population and promising future, anyone would be upset about Ralph Klein’s record. He did manage, after all, to eliminate the provincial debt. And during his tenure the province moved from hard times to boom times in a relatively short sprint. But for some Albertans the boom is seen as a curse rather than a blessing.

The rapid rate of development of the oil sands in the northern reaches of the province has many concerned about the long-term environmental consequences. These mega industrial plants are huge greenhouse gas emitters – Alberta is the largest greenhouse gas polluter in Canada, producing close to one-third of Canada’s emissions. Others point to how the mining and refining of the oil sands is draining and polluting adjacent waterways such as the Athabasca River.

After he left office, Klein admitted that his government had no plan to deal with the rapid resource development – it simply rode the wave and welcomed the billion-dollar budget surpluses that accumulated thanks to rapidly rising oil prices.

Stelmach has taken a different approach. The word “plan” is repeated in just about every campaign media release, every speech. Just before the election was called he announced his climate change plan. But it has been roundly criticized by environmentalists because it sets a target for reducing greenhouse gas emissions that would be reached by 2050 – much less ambitious than the Kyoto accord or even the Harper government’s climate change policies.

The provincial Liberals under the leadership of economist Kevin Taft are touting a plan that would deal with greenhouse gas emissions sooner rather than later and includes a hard cap on greenhouse gases in five years. Both positions would put Alberta on a collision course with the federal government and other provinces when it comes to climate change policies.

As with all elections in this province since the discovery of that gusher oil well in Leduc in 1947 – the petroleum industry looms in the background. Since so many Albertans depend on it either directly or indirectly for work, its influence can never be discounted. What’s good for the industry is believed by many people to be good for them too. And the Conservatives have long been seen as the party that works best with the industry.

But the patina of Tory confidence has worn thin the last few years. Rural Albertans are still loyal to the party in much the same way they were once loyal to Social Credit. But in the cities it’s a different story. Most of the Edmonton constituencies are already in the hands of the opposition. The Liberals held four seats in Calgary before the election was called and are optimistic they can win more. During Ralph’s heyday, Conservatives could easily win every seat in the city.

The biggest problem for the Conservatives now is a lack of enthusiasm among their own voters. Even influential Conservatives are turning away.

Last week Calgarian Ron Wood, once Reform party leader Preston Manning’s press secretary, announced that he was not only going to vote Liberal but had a Liberal sign on his front lawn.

“They’re not progressive, they’re not conservative,” he told a newspaper columnist. “They should be defeated and go away for four or eight years and rethink who they are.”

Whether the turning tide is strong enough to sweep the Tories out of office remains to be seen. But one thing is clear; the Alberta Conservatives aren’t quite as sure of themselves as they used to be.

Gillian Steward is a Calgary writer and journalist, and former managing editor of The Calgary Herald.

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