The difficult choice facing Premier Ed Stelmach
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 04 December 2006
The two big leadership votes in Canada this past weekend ended the same way.

Pulled between diverging front runners, the federal Liberals and Alberta’s Conservatives both opted for compromise candidates.

In Alberta, the clash between Jim Dinning and Ted Morton moved the party in large numbers to third-place candidate Ed Stelmach, whose organization and positioning were superb.

But precedents are not encouraging.

Some have pointed to Harry Strom, the last of Alberta’s Social Credit dynasty, and others to Joe Clark. Both were seen at the time as safe and unifying alternatives, and both failed.

However, circumstances are always different. Ed Stelmach’s future will not be determined by history. It will be determined by Ed Stelmach.

If he has wisdom and courage he will do just fine.

He will notice, for example, that the other improbable winner in this contest -- apart from himself -- was Ted Morton.

A backbench rookie with no media, public or caucus support, Morton knocked out four cabinet ministers on his way to third place -- Victor Doerksen, Lyle Oberg, Mark Norris and David Hancock.

Morton in fact took 28% of the final ballot. Then, because most of his supporters chose Stelmach as their second pick, Morton’s camp gave Stelmach his whopping majority over Jim Dinning.

So only one of the three finalists was actually defeated, not two.

Dinning, remember, had the huge war-chest, the impressive record, the army of professionals, the nine years of preparation, the phalanx of MLAs and ministers, and the establishment endorsements.

Morton had only an idea -- the idea that Albertans must learn to stand on their own feet and reduce the massive outflow of Alberta money to the federal treasury.

Dinning attacked this idea with the same scripted ferocity as Jean Chretien and Paul Martin attacked Stephen Harper. “Ted Morton’s Alberta,” said Dinning, “is not my Alberta.” One of his MLAs said Morton would turn Alberta into Alabama. One of his ministers warned that a party led by Morton would lose the next election.

Dinning said, rather sanctimoniously, he favours peace with Ottawa.

Well who doesn’t? The problem, as Morton pointed out, is that peace costs Alberta $15 billion a year -- a net fiscal contribution of an astonishing $15,000 per Alberta family per year.  Albertans cannot secure their future as long as the federal system is creaming 7% of their economy off the top.

Stelmach knows this. But he also knows that most Albertans don’t know it, and would probably rather not think about it.

The easy answer for Stelmach is to deny that Ottawa is a problem. Reconcile with the Dinning caucus, forget Ottawa, and shut Morton out; for while Morton has over one-quarter of the party membership, he has almost none of the caucus. And it’s the caucus with which a premier must daily contend.

Denying the problem would be easy; but it would be poor leadership.

The 41,000 supporters that Morton organized across Alberta represent the province’s newest and most forward-looking political force. They understand that Alberta must play a key role in changing the federal system.

Ed Stelmach, if he assigns Morton a key cabinet role to do this, will go down in the books as a great premier.

And if he doesn’t, I suspect he will end up a footnote like Harry Strom.

It’s his choice.

 - Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.