Back to the Future

Jim Dinning: a new Conservative, or the same old story?

By Trevor Harrison

It is just after 11:00am, June 14, 2006. Jim Dinning takes the stage at Calgary’s Vertigo Theatre, located at the base of the Calgary Tower, perhaps the city’s most symbolic corporate landmark. Behind him stand 27 Tory MLAs, a portion of the 250 people in total who have gathered for the launch of his bid to replace Ralph Klein as leader of Alberta’s Conservative party and premier of the province. Hours before, Dinning made the same announcement in Edmonton to a gathering of 300 people. Later in the afternoon, he will repeat the announcement in Medicine Hat.

The partisan crowd likes Jim Dinning. He’s perceived as “friendly” and “personable.” They also like the “look” Dinning might bring to office. Trim, youthful, even athletic: he looks good in a suit, unlike Ralph Klein. But, most important, they also believe Dinning has “the right stuff” to set a new course for the province. And so they applaud enthusiastically as he serves up a smorgasbord of warmed-over ideas such as sustainable and diversified economy, and even tries his hand at the “vision thing.” (It’s time to shake things up and unleash people’s imaginations.” “It’s time for Alberta to step up and play a strong leadership role in Canada.”)

Albertans at large, however, might still wonder, “Who is Jim Dinning?” Perhaps more importantly, where might Dinning—by many accounts the front-runner to become Alberta’s next CEO (a.k.a. premier)—take the province? Will he keep to the draconian policies that marked his earlier days in the Klein government? Or has he changed with the times?

The Klein Revolution Revisited; or, Alberta Politics in Brief

Discovering what a Jim Dinning premiership might mean to Alberta requires first a brief look at the nature of Alberta politics. The first rule of Alberta politics is that it isn’t like politics anywhere else.

Democratic political theory extols competitiveness and diversity. And, in practice, most jurisdictions pretending to be democratic exhibit something of a competitive party system. Not Alberta, however. Albertans are serial monogamists  when it comes to their governing parties, first marrying the Liberals (1905–1921), followed by the United Farmers of Alberta (1921–1935), Social Credit (1935–1971), and finally the Conservatives in 1971. There has never been a minority government in Alberta. And, unless there is a 2007 election and an upset victory by another party, the Conservatives will surpass Social Credit as Alberta’s (and Canada’s) longest consecutively governing party.

Albertans don’t elect governments; they anoint dynasties. Think of a big circus tent, replete with stunt performers, assorted political animals, occasional clowns, and, of course, a ringmaster, surrounded on all sides by a large but generally passive audience. Outside this main tent are always some smaller tents (the Liberals, NDP, Alliance etc.), but these are generally ignored, merely sideshows. That’s Alberta politics. In fact, when Albertans do turn away from the big tent, it’s usually to go over to some entirely new circus that has arrived in town. But, for the most part, politics is confined to the big tent. And every few years, just to prove Alberta is a democracy (sort of), an election is held, at which the outcome is rarely in doubt.

The second rule of Alberta  politics is that Albertans  like strong leaders. They don’t want consensus builders or conciliators. They want tough ringmasters who will tame the lions. Albertans liked the Socreds’ authoritative tag team of the Rev. William Aberhart and his successor, the Rev. Ernest Manning, but not so the lacklustre leadership of Harry Strom. They also liked the urbane sophistication of Peter Lougheed, patriarch of the current Conservative dynasty, but not the laid- back and ambivalent leadership of his successor, Don Getty.

In 1992, Alberta was struggling, beset by high interest rates and a recession. The governing PCs, meanwhile, wrestled with their own personal demons, notably a passel of scandals, including bad loans to government cronies. In this context, Alberta’s ruling coalition began to come unstuck. That fall, Getty announced he was stepping down as premier. Quickly, different factions began emerging within the Tory tent; indeed, some people began looking once more  outside  the  main  tent for the kind of messianic new party that might cleanse Alberta’s body politic and set things right. It seemed Alberta was on the verge of one of its infrequent political eruptions.

The Liberal party, led by former Edmonton mayor Laurence Decore, appeared set to defeat the floundering Tories.

This brings us to our third rule of Alberta politics. Alberta politics is divided up into three regions: Calgary, Edmonton and the rest.

On the surface, the Conservatives in December 1992 were split between two specific factions: a young urban group (descendants of the Lougheed years) and a group of prominent older, rural politicians, mainly located in the north. The urbanites’ candidate was Nancy Betkowski, a former health minister. Ostensibly, the candidate of the country folks was Ralph Klein, a former environment minister. But Klein had a card hidden up his sleeve that gave him an advantage in the province’s third, and perhaps most important, region: he was also the former mayor of Calgary. By contrast, Betkowski’s support was located primarily in Edmonton.

In the end, Klein—the straight-shootin’ good ol’ boy from Cow Town—captured Alberta’s other two electoral segments. These regions were the base upon which he subsequently rebuilt the Conservative dynasty, winning four consecutive elections between 1993 and 2004, thus confirming the PCs as Alberta’s natural governing party.

Internally, meanwhile, the Conservatives went through something of a purge. Many of the urbanites and centre-left Tories fled the party; Betkowski famously turned down the offer of a cabinet post weeks after her defeat, eventually leaving the party, only to later return under a new name—Nancy MacBeth—to lead the Liberal party into defeat in the 2001 election. Many of the party’s former Red Tories left or went into hiding in the nether reaches of the big tent. There, they have bided their time, waiting to return.

One very prominent Betkowski supporter stayed behind, however: Jim Dinning. Indeed, Dinning not only survived the bloodbath, he thrived. The story of how he did so is instructive.

Portrait of the Politician as a Young Man

James Francis Dinning was born in Edmonton on December 4, 1952. He has deep roots in the province.

His great-grandfather, Harry Bentley, owned Lethbridge’s first dry goods store and was later a member of that city’s town council and its second mayor. Dinning’s grandfather was president of Burns & Co. and the founding chairman of the Alberta Liquor Commission. His father, John, was a fighter pilot who was shot down during the Second World War and spent time in a POW camp. After the war, John moved his family (wife, Frances, and three sons) to Calgary, where he became a liquor manufacturer’s sales representative.

Jim Dinning was the youngest of the sons. He attended Western Canada High School, where he was elected president of the student council in Grade 12, then went on to Queen’s University at Kingston, where he received a bachelor’s degree in commerce and a master’s in public administration. Following his graduation in 1977, Dinning landed a prestigious job with the Alberta government: executive assistant to Lou Hyndman, then Alberta’s treasurer. In 1983, he joined the private sector, becoming manager of provincial government affairs for Dome Petroleum, but later that year was persuaded by Peter Lougheed to take over as executive director of the southern Alberta premier’s office in Calgary.

Dinning married his grade-school sweetheart, Jane Peacock, whose father, Fred Peacock, was a government minister under Peter Lougheed. They had four children.

By the time he was 32, Dinning had already held a variety of non-elected positions in government, including that of deputy minister of federal and intergovernmental affairs. But he wanted a more direct role in politics. So, in 1986, Jim Dinning ran on the Conservative ticket in Calgary Shaw and was elected to the Legislature. He was soon named Minister of Community and Occupational Health, followed later by becoming Minister of Education.

Despite holding these portfolios, Dinning was not a particular star in the Getty cabinet. As journalist Mark Lisac notes in The Klein Revolution, Dinning had been a “more or less forgotten man for six years under Don Getty.” Still, he hadn’t made any enemies and seemed to have made all the right moves for future political success—that is, until he supported Betkowski in the leadership race. Now, with her defeat, Dinning’s career might suddenly have hit the ditch.

Getting Religion

The early days of the Klein Revolution exhibited many elements of a religious experience. Warnings of impending doom were rampant.  Conservative  politicians and right-wing pundits, in particular, proclaimed in apocalyptic terms the awful judgment the Market God was about to visit upon the people of Alberta for their profligate sins.

But these political soothsayers also offered a means of absolution based on confession, sacrifice and (above all) strict adherence to a new set of truths. Divined from a series of texts, these truths lauded unfettered markets, low taxes and less government.

One particular text, that of Sir Roger Douglas, New Zealand’s former finance minister, even provided a political strategy  for achieving salvation: hit hard, hit fast and “don’t blink”—a phrase that Ralph Klein picked up and used o&en in those early years.

Dinning was a little slower in getting religion. In his 1995 biography of Ralph Klein, author Frank Dabbs termed Dinning a “reluctantly born-again cutter.” This led some of Klein’s supporters to fear he might “backslide.” And so, as Dabbs goes on to note, in the early days of the revolution Dinning was kept on a “short leash,” even as he became Finance Minister, an otherwise prestigious portfolio.

But Klein kept Dinning around anyway, partly in hopes he might “bridge” the gap with Betkowski’s defeated wing, and Dinning soon proved the doubters wrong. Faced with his political mortality, Dinning not only found but embraced the new religion. From cautious Red Tory, he converted to energetic fiscal slasher, a kind of Freddy Krueger on steroids. He became the point man for the Klein Revolution, repeating  at every turn the mantra that Alberta had a spending problem, not a revenue problem—even as the fiscal crisis quickly dissipated. (Deficits were eliminated by 1995 and the province’s net debt by 1999.) Along the way, Dinning also coined some of the most memorable slogans of the Klein era, from saying that “normal doesn’t live in Alberta anymore,” to remarking that planning was the “stupid way” to make budget cuts. In fact it was he who, in his 1995 budget paper, first employed the term “Alberta Advantage.”

Dinning was well rewarded for his conversion and adherence to the dictates of fiscal conservatism, gaining considerable credit for turning Alberta’s  economic fortunes around. Ralph  Klein was the revolution’s symbolic leader, but Jim Dinning was seen as the one who implemented its policies. Writing at the time, journalist Larry Johnsrude called him, “the chief architect of Alberta’s cost-slashing Klein revolution.” In consequence, he was widely viewed as Klein’s natural successor.

Then, suddenly, it was over. To the shock of many, Dinning announced in 1996 that he would not run in the next election.

He cited personal reasons for his decision. His marriage to Jane had ended in 1993 and he was left with sole responsibility for their four children. Then, in early June 1996, the family’s nanny saved the children from being injured by a car backing out of a driveway, but became herself permanently disabled. This incident was followed less than two months later by a violent car crash in which two of Dinning’s children suffered minor injuries and a niece suffered a serious back injury. But other reasons may also have underlain Dinning’s decision to leave politics. For one, he wanted to prove he could make it in private business, as his father and grandfather had done before him. Also, he may already have sensed that King Ralph would not soon be vacating his throne.

Almost overnight, Jim Dinning became the man who would not be king—at least for now.

Making Ends Meet in the Corporate World

Liberal and Conservative politicians often do well in the corporate world after leaving office. This is especially so of finance ministers. Big business is always very interested in forming connections with people who have been close to government decision-making and money.

It is no surprise, then, that Dinning rose quickly in the private world after leaving office in 1997. Four months after leaving government, Dinning joined TransAlta  Corp., one of Canada’s biggest electric power producers, as senior vice-president in charge of corporate development. Later, he became the company’s executive vice-president overseeing sustainable development and external relations, a position he held until leaving TransAlta in January 2005.

Dinning also developed other strong corporate ties,  sitting on nearly a dozen corporate boards, including Shaw Communications, Finning International, Liquor Stores Income Fund, and Western Financial Group. He also served  on several non-corporate or quasi-governmental boards: chair of the Canadian Clean Power Coalition, director of the Alberta Energy Research Institute, The Banff Centre and the Canada West Foundation. Finally, he also was chair of the Calgary Health Region, a position in which he championed greater private sector involvement in health-care delivery.

In short, Dinning achieved his corporate aims, so much so that he acquired a nickname, “Diamond Dinning,” while amassing a score of credits with Alberta’s elite, which he was able to call upon later during the Conservative leadership race. In 1998 he married Evelyn Main.

The Second Coming of Jim Dinning

After 1995, Alberta began ringing up larger and larger surpluses, fuelled primarily by rising international oil and gas prices.  In this context, Ralph Klein’s Conservatives easily won re-election in 1997 and 2001. Beneath this success, however, there were warning signs for the Conservatives.

First, after eliminating the defcit and the debt, the Klein government lost its sense of direction. Fiscal probity became a fetish rather than a genuine plan. A chasm soon emerged between the rhetoric of penury and the reality of plenty. Many complained that the fiscal debt had been replaced by growing debts to the province’s social and physical infrastructure.

Second, as one might expect of a government in office for too long and facing little opposition, Ralph Klein’s Conservatives became increasingly arrogant and dismissive of criticism. Genuine debate was often stifled. Klein himself often seemed bored and irritated, his behaviour increasingly erratic, fuelled, as he finally admitted, by excessive drinking.

In 2004, the Conservatives once more went to the electorate. At first, it seemed like another coronation of the Conservative party. In the course of the campaign, however, signs of simmering public discontent began to emerge from all sides. The Klein government had no response to the criticisms that it was visionless and—in the words of Liberal leader Kevin Taft—operating on “autopilot.” While the Conservatives won the election, the party’s support dropped by more than 211,000 votes while its seat total declined from 74 to 61. Indeed, given the lowest turnout in Alberta electoral history (45 per cent), the Conservatives drew the support of less than 22 per cent of all total eligible voters. The Liberals, meanwhile, emerged as a solid opposition, even gaining three seats in Calgary, the NDP likewise re-established its Edmonton base, and the newly formed Alberta Alliance party gained its first seat.

The next year proved fateful for Klein’s diminished leadership. While Alberta remained awash in money (a nearly $9-billion surplus in 2005/06), decisions from the premier’s office appeared increasingly subject to Klein’s personal whims, often without discussion with cabinet, let alone caucus or the Legislature. By early 2006, Alberta seemed to many to have devolved from a one-party state to a one-person state.

The Conservative party had one chance to save itself, however, and the party took it, stunning Premier Klein in a leadership vote held on March 31. Endorsed by a tepid majority of only 55 per cent, Klein quickly announced he would be stepping down as leader in the fall.

Jim Dinning soon emerged as the leading contender to replace Klein, bolstered by several advantages (name recognition, enormous corporate support and the self-fulfilling belief that he is going to win).

Of course, anything can happen. There is a strong ABD—Anybody But Dinning—movement within the party. Still, it would be a major surprise if Jim Dinning did not become Alberta’s next premier.

What Lies Ahead?

No one can predict exactly where Jim Dinning might take the province. In his statements, he says all the right things—diversified   economy,  well-educated work force, clean and sustainable energy, greater government accountability, opportunities for Aboriginal people and those with disabilities—if sometimes straining to square the political circle. (Dinning says Kyoto’s targets are achievable, but doesn’t want to back away from free enterprise and a friendly business environment. He also supports the Canada Health Act’s key principles, but would like to open it up for more private-sector participation.)

While Dinning’s desire to cover all the bases scares some people, it also suggests he is aware of the many complex challenges Alberta faces. At  the same time, however,  there  is a surprising consistency in views about Dinning’s beliefs. Critics may debate his ideological steadfastness—some of Alberta’s hard right, for example, appear to view Jim Dinning as a Red Tory, a kind of political Gumby, ready to bow to the right while bending to the left—but few deny Dinning is ultimately a conservative. No one should therefore expect Jim Dinning, if he becomes premier, to challenge Alberta’s underlying power structure or fundamentally alter its policies. Under his rule, the face of Alberta conservatism may become younger and more cosmopolitan, but the province will remain largely the same.

Trevor Harrison is a sociology professor at the University of Lethbridge and former research director at the Parkland Institute.


Dinning’s Rivals

Victor Doerksen
Doerksen has represented Red Deer South for four terms and was appointed Minister of Innovation & Science in 2004. He is also chair of the Alberta Research Council and deputy chair of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Before entering politics Doerksen worked as a computer analyst/programmer and a certified general accountant. He also spent several years studying religion. In 1982 he joined the Bank of Montreal and during a 12-year tenure worked his way up to senior management.

Dave Hancock
As the most recent Minister of Advanced Education, Hancock was responsible for the province’s universities, colleges and technical schools. He also served in Ralph Klein’s cabinet as Minister of Justice and Attorney General, and held the Intergovernmental & Aboriginal Affairs portfolio. Hancock authored the government’s 20-year strategic plan, which was released last March. First elected in 1997 in Edmonton Whitemud, Hancock has also served as president of the Alberta Conservative Party.

Gary McPherson
Former chair of the Premier’s Council on the Status of Persons with Disabilities, McPherson has been a quadriplegic since a childhood bout with polio. Besides his responsibilities with the Premier’s Council, he was also chair of the Panel on Sexual Sterilization. He is currently executive director of the Canadian Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the U of A’s school of business. McPherson is also the founding shareholder of two so&ware companies. He has never been elected to public office.

Ted Morton
Morton is considered a strong contender for the leadership due to his high profile in the former Reform Party and Canadian Alliance. In 2001 he was one of six Albertans (including Stephen Harper) who authored the “firewall letter,” a manifesto that calls on the government of Alberta to use all of its constitutional powers to reduce the influence of the federal government on Albertans. He is the MLA for Foothills-Rocky View, and in 1998 was elected as a Senator in Waiting.

Mark Norris
Norris became celebrated within the Tory party when he defeated former Tory leadership candidate turned Liberal leader Nancy MacBeth in Edmonton McClung in 2001. However, Norris lost his seat to a Liberal in the 2004 election. During his short time in government, Norris served as Minister of Economic Development responsible for Tourism and Industry. Before entering politics, he operated the family business, an advertising and sign manufacturing company in Edmonton.

Lyle Oberg
Oberg, the MLA for Strathmore-Brooks, was Minister of Infrastructure & Transportation in the most recent Klein cabinet and is credited with establishing Alberta’s first public private partnership—the Anthony Henday Freeway in Edmonton. Earlier this year, Oberg was fired from cabinet and suspended from caucus for publicly criticizing Premier Klein. He decided to pursue the party leadership anyway and was readmitted to caucus in July. Before entering politics in 1993, Oberg was a physician.

Ed Stelmach
Stelmach was first elected MLA for Vegreville-Viking in 1993. He was appointed deputy whip and then government caucus whip in 1995. By 1997 he had been named Minister of Agriculture. He later assumed responsibility for other portfolios, including Agriculture and Infrastructure & Transportation. Before entering provincial politics, Stelmach worked as reeve of the county of Lamont. He was raised in the Lamont-area homestead established by his grandparents when they arrived in Canada in 1898.

The Rules of the Game

The Alberta PCs will vote for a new leader on Saturday, November 25.  If no candidate wins by a clear majority the top three will compete in a runo$ vote to be held on Saturday, December 2. To be eligible to vote a person must be a Canadian citizen, have lived in Alberta for six months and be a member of the Progresssive Conservative Association of Alberta. Party memberships can be bought for $5 and will even be available at polling stations located throughout the province. Polls will be open from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.


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