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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Premier Stelmach and the Shifting Ground of Alberta Politics

There is lots of moving ground beneath the political feet of Premier Stelmach these days. The big shift in PC party power base to the north and Edmonton from its “natural” place of Calgary and the deep south has caused great angst in Cowtown. This anxiety is "true" even though in Calgary they have three Cabinet Ministers compared to Edmonton’s one.

Budget 2007, the biggest spending budget in Alberta history was put together in 60 days and is suffering from some spotty execution. We are seeing this particularly in areas like municipal infrastructure funding coming with strings that are seen as forcing inter-municipal “co-operation.” As a result we have the Mayor of Calgary leading the charge over claims of broken promises. Even the distribution the funds using the assessment base make Counties happy and anger the Towns. The Counties gets most of the cash for the “co-operation projects” but the Towns have the infrastructure pressures. We all know the Golden Rule. He who has the gold makes the rules. This is not likely to be a winning formula for fostering any true town and county infrastructure co-operation...I could be wrong and hope I am...but time will tell.

There was too little budget bounce for what is needed to meet public service provider wage levels to stop the Diaspora of skilled workers in the disabilities sectors departing to the oil patch so they can make a living wage. For the record I am working on this issue. Staffing shortages and turn over in the disability private non-profit service sector is averaging 40% and some citizens with disabilities are going to suffer serious harm if this is not fixed and quickly.

Then there is the "minor" matter of ticking off the teachers in the Budget by tying a $25M supplement to pension fund payments as condition to labour peace. That is flying in the face of the Premier saying they would be separate issues during the leadership campaign. Expect work to rule job action from teachers this fall…and parents to be super ticked by October.

The affordable housing efforts have been sidetracked into a political football as shelter cost are soaring due to market demands and poor planning by the past regime. The environment has been given short shrift and oil sands management tie to growth is a concern. The resource royalty rates review is starting now but they are facing a monumentally complex job and have to report with recommendations by August 31.

Then we have the pure political plays. The recent Ethics Commissioner Report on the misguided scheme of the Stelmach campaign volunteers to sell access for $5k a pop to cover campaign deficits was found not to be illegal but not prudent either. The anonymous campaign contributions of leadership candidates was frowned up (to be euphemistic) by the Party membership at the recent PC Party AGM too.

Scads of public consultations are going on all over the province. They are aimed at reporting in the fall and positioning for a possible spring 2008 general election. This all add to the pressures and helps to keep the political footing tricky as the policy and political ground seems to be moving constantly.

Then we have the by-elections set for June 12. Framed as a litmus test for Stelmach’s leadership in Calgary circles it has some interesting dynamics. CalgaryGrit has an interesting take on how the story goes if the PCs drop Calgary Elbow. If the Liberals win it, that is somehow the end of the PC world. That is true if you are so Calgary centric that you think Calgary IS Alberta. It used to be the case but Alberta became a more balanced and interesting place when Stelmach won the PC leadership. Calgary obviously has some serious issues and now it will have some interesting politics. PC MLAs in Calgary will have to win seats on their own merit and not ride on the coat-tails of the leader any more. It has been that way for decades in Edmonton since Premier Getty lost his seat to a Liberal, the late Percy Wickman. It will result in better government and governance in the end.

Calgary Elbow is Ralph Klein’s old seat. Rod Love says the PC could lose it in this by-election and he is right. We lost Calgary Varsity to the Liberals in 2004 right after Murray Smith “retired” and went to Washington DC and he was a very popular Calgary PC politician. That should have been the wake up call to the Calgary PCs. The PCs in New Brunswick immediately lost former Premier Bernard Lord’s seat when he retired from politics. So it happens and yes, it could happen again. What does such a change mean in a by-election though…other than the usual chance to “send the government a message?”

Albertans in general, and Progressive Conservatives in particular, have been too complacent too long. We have been benignly presumptive that tomorrow will be an extension of yesterday so planning was seen as simply unnecessary. We seemed to believe this myth even when all the evidence we could see emerging belied those presumptions. Evidence like massive oils sands investment and development, the Edmonton-Calgary Corridor growth phenomenon and chronic labour shortages plus the implications of many other indicators were ignored.

Any partisan change in the by-elections on June 12 will only be meaningful if the voter participation rates exceed 50%. If people stay home and do not show up we may well see some changes. They will be based on local campaign dynamics and by-election realities, but they do not necessarily make a trend. Any local by-election change in party representation will be a wake up call for the PCs particularly if they lose Calgary Elbow to the Liberals and Drumheller-Stettler to the Alliance. All politics are local and by-elections are the epitome of that truism.

In the meantime Premier Stelmach has some refocusing and serious short term fixing to do based on sound principles of good government and long term planning not just the short game of partisan politics. He is very capable but he best get at it. Change is in the air...his election as Progressive Conservative leader has already proven that...but that was just the beginning. No doubt there are lots more changes yet to come so it is time to get ahead of the curve and design the changes - or sit back and be devoured by them.