If the first ballot of the Progressive Conservative leadership race is any indication, Alberta may soon have a surprising new premier. After a month-long campaign to replace Ralph Klein, the ballots were cast Sat., Nov. 25 with unexpected results: instead of the slam-dunk win for Jim Dinning, he wound up with only a narrow 4,000 vote lead over Ted Morton for the party leadership. Pundits were left with one nagging question: how the hell did Ted Morton end up with 25,000 votes?
With the conservative government well into its 35-year stretch as the ruling party in Edmonton, nobody would expect anything to change. Indeed, nearly all of the candidates touted the same policies and priorities, essentially presenting different versions of the same platform. Ted Morton, with his frank endorsement of change within the party, stood out like a sore thumb. With the race for King Ralph's vacant throne inevitably heating up, Dinning and Morton have readied themselves for an ideological clash of the titans. The only problem is Dinning doesn't have much of an ideology, while Morton has too much of one.
While Morton has gone on record supporting all sorts of surprising things--creating a provincial police force and pension plan, saving royalty revenues, overhauling the healthcare system, cutting taxes and a general move towards more provincial power--Dinning has sat on the fence, something Morton has called him on during interviews. And while most other candidates lavished attention upon Alberta's populous urban centres, Morton actually paid attention to the rural populations, garnering a massive number of votes as a result.
More importantly, for students at least, Morton was one of the only candidates the Gauntlet interviewed that outlined a very specific plan to improve post-secondary education beyond the generic "increase spaces and spend more money" approach advocated by the other conservatives. Perhaps Morton had an unfair advantage due to his experience as a University of Calgary professor, but he detailed a plan that involved increasing the availability of student loans and using provincial money to match private university endowments, with the aim to create a sustainable, affordable plan for the long-term.
Despite being a key to his success, Morton's honesty may well be his Achilles' heel. A self-described "true, blue Tory," Morton is an unabashed social conservative who vows to protect the traditional definition of marriage, or at least protect the rights of clergy and teachers who don't support same-sex marriage. While economic conservatism is an easy sell in such a money-loving province, social conservatism can be difficult for people to swallow when you have to spend too much time spelling it out for them. Ralph Klein's wacky off-the-cuff antics often distracted from his social leanings, while Morton's have provided for hours of debate on local talk radio.
With the second ballot looming, the battle lines have been drawn: Morton has gained the backing of the federal Conservatives and accused Dinning of being part of a party establishment run by big business. Dinning hasn't gained any large endorsements and has spent his time fear-mongering, speculating that a Morton-run party would not represent Albertans' interests. Meanwhile, third-place finisher Ed Stelmach has gained the backing of former leadership contenders Mark Norris, Lyle Oberg and Dave Hancock, and is the man Morton has singled out as his biggest threat. Political observers have noted that Stelmach's supporters--15,000 on the first ballot--will likely determine who becomes Alberta's next premier.
With the leadership of the party--and of Canada's richest province--at stake, it's up to Morton either to say the wrong thing or rise to the occasion. This dilemma isn't uncommon in recent years: the federal Conservatives won power in part because Stephen Harper was able to put a muzzle on some of the more vocal right-wing MPs. The problem is that the only person who can win (or lose) the leadership for Ted Morton is Ted Morton.