When Don Getty took the reins of the Alberta Tories in 1985, he had big shoes to fill. The Progressive Conservative party had been in power since 1971 and had gained popularity under Peter Lougheed's leadership. Unfortunately, Getty's poor performance led to speculation as to the party's future while the Alberta Liberals grew stronger. Facing defeat in an upcoming election, Getty resigned and passed the torch to the charismatic ex-mayor of Calgary, Ralph Klein.
In response to the deficit that had built up from over-spending, Klein turned the budget around, slashing all kinds of social programs in an effort to bring Alberta out of the red. He gained wide popularity for penny-pinching and continued to gain stronger majority governments in Alberta, capturing 74 of 83 legislative assembly seats by 2001, dropping back to 62 in 2004. When it came time for Klein to retire, like Lougheed, he would leave big shoes to fill for long-shot candidate Ed Stelmach.
It wasn't long before Stelmach's leadership came into question. He was compared to Harry Strom--whose leadership of Social Credit led to the fall of the party's 36-year rule of Alberta in the 1971 election--when blogger Dave Cournoyer purchased edstelmach.ca and forwarded traffic to the Wikipedia entry on the former premier. A group calling themselves Albertans for Change has also recently criticized him in a series of print and television advertisements, arguing Stelmach lacks a plan for the future of Alberta. With a provincial election looming ahead, Albertans will find out whether this comparison is accurate or mere political mudslinging.
The premier has been accused of alienating Jim Dinning and his supporters in Calgary. He recently lost support of current Calgary Montrose MLA Hung Pham due to what Pham described as poor decisions and dishonorable actions on the part of party leadership. In the 2007 byelection, Klein's Calgary Elbow riding was lost to Liberal Craig Cheffins, striking a crippling blow to the party's ability to hold seats in conservative country. Furthering the lack of confidence in Stelmach's leadership is evidenced by current finance minister Lyle Oberg's announcement he would not seek re-election in the upcoming election, following a series of conflicts with the party. Oberg, who ran for party leadership against Stelmach and Dinning, has held several cabinet posts and has been an MLA since 1993.
This provincial election will see a new party arrive onto the political scene. The Wildrose party and the Alberta Alliance have amalgamated to form the Wildrose Alliance, whose right-wing stance may be enough to find their way into the legislative assembly. With 53 candidates running in the provincial election, the Wildrose Alliance stands to gain the support of disaffected voters who traditionally support the Tories. This could mean voters will either elect the fringe party to several seats or split the conservative vote enough to get Liberals and New Democrats more representation.
Stelmach is in a very unfortunate position and it is unfair to blame the folly of the Conservatives solely on his leadership. Stelmach wasn't given an easy task when he took over the party. In Klein's desperate effort to pay down Alberta's $23 billion debt, he made cuts everywhere he could while keeping oil royalties low to encourage growth of the industry. Education and health care suffered massive hits in funding as a result, and Alberta has been left with crippled hospitals and a government unwilling to do anything about rising tuition. While Klein was making cuts to health care, billions of dollars in oil royalties went uncollected. This means billions of dollars could have been funnelled into social programs or remained in the hands of taxpayers rather than lining the pockets of oil companies. When it came time to up royalties, Stelmach came under fire from wealthy Conservative voters who feared increasing the royalties would drive industry out of Alberta and cause a substantial slump in the economy. After Klein finished pillaging social welfare and achieved his goal of paying Alberta's debt, he passed out prosperity cheques to Albertans as if it would make up for the lack of social infrastructure, and promptly announced his retirement.
If Stelmach wants to avoid becoming the next Harry Strom, he's going to have to find a way to regain confidence in his leadership. The loss of longtime and well-supported party members isn't going to bode well for him in an election that promises to split the right-wing vote. In addition to big shoes, Klein left a big mess and Stelmach is going to have to step it up if he's to stop the decline and eventual fall of the PC dynasty.