A Tale of Two Leaders

Stephen Harper, Ed Stelmach and the democracy they left behind

By Fred Stenson

Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach emerged as government leaders in 2006. Some say the similarity ends there. If you stood them side by side—or, for that matter, if you studied them for a year—you would not find much in common. Harper: arrogant, abrasive, a forceful presence (negative but effective), an able speaker, strategic, fiercely competitive, ambitious, ruthless. Stelmach: shy, passive-aggressive, a tongue-tied wallflower in power.

From the start, their political situations were near opposites. Stelmach inherited a mantle of majority leadership stretching back to Peter Lougheed in 1971. Harper squeaked into power with a minority and has not been able to win a majority. And yet if you drew a graph of Harper’s and Stelmach’s five years in power, the lines would diverge wildly but would also pass through the same points many times—the most consistent match being their apparent indifference to democracy. When either leader had a problem, even a small one, and democracy stood in the way, democracy got shafted.

The Harper and Stelmach governments have been famous for responding to criticism with attack. If the question “Do Canadians/Albertans really have democracy?” were put to them, the response might be, “Having asked this, are you now afraid that men with sunglasses will drag you into an alley and kick you until you’re Tory blue? If not, chances are you live in a democracy.”

If democracy is the ability to vote, then, yes, Ottawa and Alberta have it. But by that measuring stick, so do Myanmar and Zimbabwe. If democracy is a way of living and governing, a readiness to accept the will of the majority and to protect the rights of the individual, the situation is less clear. In Canada’s Parliament and Senate and in its provincial legislatures, the practice of democracy involves traditions and conventions, many descended from British history. These are what ensure the spirit of democracy, not just its technicalities, and it’s here that most of the wreckage of the Harper and Stelmach years has occurred.

With Stelmach having announced his retirement from the Alberta premiership, and with Stephen Harper headed down the runway toward another election in search of his elusive federal majority, it might be a good time (perhaps the last chance) to compare the two careers and test the hypothesis that a politician’s insufficient concern for democracy and the electorate will lead him inevitably to suffer rebellion and defeat. That is, will Stephen Harper’s anti-democratic tendencies cause him to follow Ed Stelmach into the sunset?

In early 2006 the Conservative Party defeated Paul Martin’s Liberals and Stephen Harper became the 22nd Prime Minister in Canada. When he assembled his cabinet, Harper saw that the cupboard was bare: many rookies and only one MP with experience in a federal cabinet (Rob Nicholson in the ever so brief Kim Campbell government).

Two weeks after the election, Harper reached out and plucked David Emerson from the Liberals to be his trade minister. Emerson had served in Martin’s cabinet; he had just been elected in Vancouver-Kingsway as a Liberal. In Emerson’s riding the Liberals and NDP had picked up over 35,000 votes between them, while the Conservatives had 8,679. In other words, the riding had clearly indicated it wanted a Liberal, or, failing that, a New Democrat. Emerson was in no way respecting his constituents by turning Tory, and neither was Harper by asking him to defect.

Given Stephen Harper’s professed love for hockey, let’s put the manoeuvre in hockey terms. Just before the season begins, a team realizes it’s weak on right wing. Before the first game, it offers a fat salary to the opposing team’s star right-winger. In the NHL no such thing is possible; the league has contracts and trade deadlines. But all we have in Canada is tradition. If someone comes along and ignores that, we’re not equipped to deal with it. Harper knew this and went ahead.

Few of us, whether shocked by the Emerson business or not, saw it as a certain indicator of what Harper would be like as Prime Minister. But had we jumped to that conclusion, we wouldn’t have been wrong. Ever since, Harper has been proving that, if there is no compelling deterrent in law, he will do what is best for him.

Garth Turner, Conservative MP for Ontario-Halton, did not like the Emerson deal, and said so on his recklessly candid blog. He thought Emerson owed it to democracy to step down and run in a by-election. No such thing happened, and in October 2006 Turner was suspended from the Tory caucus.

Turner’s ouster accurately foretold a future in which Stephen Harper would strangle his party so tightly it could barely breathe. On communication, his control is like nothing the world has seen since the Iron Curtain days. Critics, rule-breakers, free talkers, even mere questioners—all are gotten rid of. Linda Keen was fired as head of the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission for doing her best to keep Chalk River from turning into Chernobyl. Conservative Senators Michael Meighen and Hugh Segal were forced to resign from committees for thinking independently. Conservative MP Bill Casey was kicked out of the party for voting against a budget. Casey recalls Harper telling caucus that “anybody who criticizes the cuts will suffer severe consequences to their political career.” It is blackly amusing that this government promised stronger protection for whistleblowers.

When Ed Stelmach tumbled into the Conservative leadership, and the Alberta premiership, he did so by being everyone’s second choice. On the first two PC leadership ballots, frontrunners Jim Dinning and Ted Morton couldn’t knock each other off. Voters had been asked to record a second choice, and because of the fierce Morton/Dinning rivalry, most picked Steady Eddy second. In lieu of a third ballot, the second place votes were totalled and Ed won.

Stelmach’s experience of politics is all-Albertan: municipal councillor, reeve, MLA, provincial cabinet minister. When he inherited his mandate from Ralph Klein, he faced an opposition of 22 MLAs (out of 83). If he felt entitled, it would have been human, but he seemed shocked to be premier and uncertain how to proceed.

That Albertans were hopeful at this point may seem pathetic, but leadership changes are practically the only political changes we know. The hope was that Stelmach would be different from Klein. Though uncharismatic and a hesitant speaker, Ed seemed nice and that itself was refreshing. Things got off to an awkward start when his first cabinet was mostly rural men who had supported his leadership. Two women; no visible minorities. Only four out of 18 from Edmonton or Calgary—in other words, two-thirds of Alberta’s population represented by two-ninths of the cabinet.

Stelmach continued to stumble. He proposed a $5,000-a-pop fee for private audiences; he threatened to sue a blogger for buying the domain name; his party managed to lose Klein’s Calgary seat to the Liberals in a by-election. But the depth of political stillness in Alberta was such that when Stelmach took the province into an election in March 2008, he upped his majority by 10 seats. A key statistic was the 40.6 per cent turnout, the lowest in provincial history. With 53 per cent of the popular vote, the Conservatives were elected by a mere 20 per cent of Alberta’s eligible voters.

To be fair to Stelmach, he did some good things in his first year. Having been a cabinet minister through the Klein deficit-slaying period, he’d seen the social devastation. Some 10,000 medical positions were lost or downgraded during the cost-cutting binge. The beds lost in the closure of Alberta’s largest hospital, the Calgary General, had never been replaced, such that patient wait times had lengthened and unrest among staff had become the norm. Stelmach reversed course and began hiring doctors and nurses.

Stelmach, as a farmer, had seen how rural Alberta had failed to benefit from the boom. He quietly pumped infrastructure dollars into rural municipalities to revive dying towns.

The most courageous thing Stelmach did in 2007 was review Alberta’s petroleum royalties. During the insanely low oil prices of 1981–1995, the government lowballed royalties to keep the oil sector happy and oil sands projects from closing. Klein left the royalties low, which helped lure billions in oil sands investment after 1996.

When Stelmach gave an expert panel the task of determining whether royalties were sufficient, the results were dramatic. The government announced that royalties would go up in 2009 by 20 per cent, bringing in an extra $1.4-billion in provincial revenue every year. “We recognize energy is a volatile industry,” Stelmach said. “There is risk and there is reward. So when oil prices go up, the royalty goes up.” The oil sector was outraged.

As Harper worked through his early years of power, his tactics didn’t soften. Minority government status ironically gave Harper licence for junkyard-dog behaviour. “He had to do it,” his defenders say, had to act like everyone was his enemy, because they were. But after five years of majority-like carte blanche, thanks to the empty coffers of the Liberal Party, there is little doubt that Harper’s true character is showing. If the PM had any desire to be transparent, there would have been examples: greater access to information, actual media scrums, the odd MP let off the leash for a run. It hasn’t happened. The straitjacket is still full on.

Many have described Harper’s penchant for bullying. This dark seam of character was never more visible than during Stéphane Dion’s Liberal leadership. The Harper government’s depiction of Dion—weak, poorly spoken, politically dense—has become the accepted version. The Green Shift plan that lost Dion the 2008 federal election contained a carbon tax. Harper made that seem stupid, something that would never fly in Alberta. In fact, the Stelmach approach to greenhouse gases (GHGs) was a carbon tax: you produce too much carbon, you pay a penalty. Rick George, CEO of Suncor, argues in favour of a carbon tax. It’s not stupid, because, fairly applied, the burden of dealing with carbon is shared proportionally by those who produce it, not just by industry.

Once Harper had his foot on Dion’s windpipe, he wouldn’t let up. Attack ads, the puffin shitting on Dion’s cartoon head, smirks at his troubled English—no blow was too low, and there was enough of a mean streak on Main Street Canada that Harper profited. Asked to get dirty too, Dion replied, “I am not a bully.” Harper’s smirk said: Take the high road with me and I’ll run you over on it.

Democracy implies the existence of parties (plural). Among the inherited traditions is respect for opposition MPs and senators because their challenges are wherein democracy resides. Harper has been described as hating Liberals and liberalism, of wanting to wipe them out. If that is true, and if—to continue the hockey analogy—he manages to “take them all out” when they cross the blue line with their heads down, where will Canada’s democracy be?

If that sounds hysterical, remember what Harper did after his second election victory in 2008. Still in minority territory, Harper promised to be co-operative. But among his first moves was a budget update designed to infuriate and humiliate the opposition: an end to party subsidies, suspension of the right of public servants to strike, and a limitation on the rights of women to appeal for pay equity. The opposition’s refusal to take this abuse led to the coalition.

Arguably, Harper’s prorogation of Parliament to derail the coalition against him was the moment he and his Conservatives completely split with Canadian democratic tradition. Nothing defined it better than CBC broadcaster Don Newman’s interview with cabinet minister John Baird in December 2008. Baird’s exact words: “We will go over the heads of the Members of Parliament, go over the heads, frankly, of the Governor General, to the Canadian people.” It was such an astounding statement that Newman gave Baird a chance to reconsider. Baird repeated it, word for word: a bald statement that the Conservatives believed they had a right to power that was above Parliament; a connection to the people that was more direct than parliamentary democracy. When it was his turn, Harper said prorogation was necessary because Parliament was interfering with the work of the executive.

What could that mean except that the executive was superior to Parliament?

While Stephen Harper played fast and loose with federal democracy, Ed Stelmach did not need to in Alberta. His government was still enjoying huge budget surpluses: $8.5-billion in 2006/2007. In 2008, with oil over $100 a barrel, the surplus spiked by September to $7-billion above the government’s projection.

Stelmach’s news releases for the period suggest activity and progress. Following the royalty increases, he instituted a climate action plan, advertised as the first in North America. The claim was justified by legislated GHG targets that would cut emissions in half by 2050. It was an “intensity reduction”—not an overall cap—so that as the oil sands grew, so would Alberta’s gross GHGs. It was not an environmental-lobby pleaser, but it was more than most people expected from Alberta.

A cornerstone of the climate plan was carbon storage: to capture CO2 at major sources such as oil sands upgraders and coal-fired electricity plants, then pipeline it to old oil and gas reservoirs. The injected CO2 would pressure up the reservoirs so they would yield more oil and gas. Business loves a mega-project that seems to solve a mess left by another mega-project. On this, Alberta and the fed saw eye to eye, and both have put staggering amounts of money into carbon-capture projects since.

Then came the US bank crashes. With Alberta’s major customer in near collapse, the price of oil cratered and Alberta’s surpluses abruptly turned into deficits. The real test of Stelmach’s commitment to democracy was about to begin.

After prorogation number one, Harper’s Tories moved further outside the norms of democracy. When the Supreme Court declared that the federal government was ignoring Guantánamo Bay prisoner Omar Khadr’s constitutional rights as a Canadian, Harper ignored it. British MP George Galloway, an anti-war activist, was denied entry to Canada for “security reasons.” Harper joined Conservative MP Peter MacKay in verbally stoning diplomat Richard Colvin for remembering he had warned Canada in 2006 that Afghans were torturing the prisoners Canadian soldiers gave them. Being truthful with a parliamentary committee was enough to have Colvin’s character and loyalty questioned.

The Afghan detainee scandal looked certain to collapse Harper’s minority government, and thus came the second prorogation. More going “over the heads of” Parliament. But what will probably stick in Canadians’ minds even more than the detainee scandal was the G20 in June 2010: 20,000 police on the streets of Toronto, supposedly safeguarding world leaders, the $800-million tab in a time of restraint. The police had so little to do that they started roughing up and arresting people who were wearing black. Why? Because that was the colour preferred by a small band of vandals. Harper had no excuse for this show of force, unless he was trying to warn us.

That the oil industry and the government of Alberta are too close has been said since the early 1950s. Alberta governments take the electorate for granted and direct their efforts toward pleasing the fickle corporations. Rather than raise royalties to help slay the deficit, Klein carved education and healthcare to the bone. He filled the province with slot machines and casinos rather than touch his oil amigos for more cash.

In that context, Ed Stelmach’s raising of oil royalties was one of the best and bravest things an Alberta premier had done since Lougheed’s tough pollution regulations of the early ’70s. But when the recession hit, when drilling in Alberta slowed and oil sands projects got shelved, Albertans did a knee-jerk thing: they blamed Stelmach’s royalty hike. The world economy was lying on its back with its paws in the air, but Alberta’s recession was Ed’s fault. Streams of oil sands workers put on planes for home was a cruel thing, but blaming Stelmach made no sense—except the sense Bertrand Russell had in mind when he said, “Democracy is the process by which people choose the man who will get the blame.”

What Stelmach assumed was that everyone would continue profiting after the royalty hike, and that criticism would subside. At heart, Stelmach is an oil booster. When the 1,600 ducks died in a Syncrude tailings pond, he pointed out that wind turbines slice up birds, too. That amounted to defending the oil sands by attacking wind-generated electricity, Alberta industries that should be equal in the premier’s esteem.

Stelmach was becoming a big traveller, too, shilling for the oil sands wherever he went. He bragged up his government’s GHG emission legislation and investment in carbon capture. He portrayed the oil sands as an environmental success story. At home, Stelmach sided with industry against landowners and treated environmentalists like terrorists. He was onside with the discrediting of Dr. John O’Connor for linking oil sands pollution to bile duct cancers in Fort Chipewyan. O’Connor was criticized for raising alarm before his contentions were proven, but the College of Physicians & Surgeons agreed he was right to raise concerns on behalf of his patients. By dismissing O’Connor’s findings and criticizing him for even speaking out, Stelmach showed he was as ready to bully citizens as Harper was.

Stelmach’s response to the economic downturn was to revert to the Klein playbook. By early 2010, royalties had been reduced to the same level they were at before the 2007 royalty review panel had recommended raising them. Rather than inconvenience the oil industry, Ed attacked the new deficit by slashing health and education.

Stelmach decided that Alberta’s real problem was not environmental destruction or low revenues but image. He committed $25-million to rebranding the province. The first products, a new logo and the slogan “Freedom to Create, Spirit to Achieve,” cost $4-million. Finally, Albertans were angry.

Stephen Harper’s self-destruction may have begun with his deployment of the Senate against Parliament. If your principle is that the Senate is unelected and therefore contradictory in a democratic nation, then not filling seats as they become vacant—as Harper did for his first two years as Prime Minister—shows a certain integrity. But in late 2008, when he began stuffing the Senate with cronies, Harper showed something much less laudable: contempt suggesting cynicism. “Mr. Elected Senate” has since appointed 37 senators.

What he was preparing to do was rid himself of unsavoury legislation passed by Parliament, and such a chance presented itself with the Climate Change Accountability Act. This private member’s bill, tabled by the NDP in 2006 and reintroduced as Bill C-311 in 2009, sought greenhouse gas emission targets similar to those in the EU. Bill C-311 passed third reading in May 2010. By then it had been voted on four times. It dawdled in the Senate until Harper had a majority there. Then, on November 16, it was ambushed and defeated—the first time in 70 years a bill passed by Parliament was killed in the Senate, before it could go to final committee.

Also in November, Jim Prentice quit his job as Minister of the Environment and took a senior position in the banking industry. His departure tore another hole in Harper’s credibility. Prentice was the Red Tory who balanced the PM’s excesses. He was also Harper’s man in Alberta. The question of why he left was never answered (politically), but many wondered if his departure might be a symptom of a broader dissatisfaction among Harper’s troops. Were they finally getting sick of their restricted political lives?

Soon after Prentice left, Peter MacKay got cheeky with the boss over the United Arab Emirates. The UAE wanted more landing rights in Canada in exchange for continued use of military airbase Camp Mirage. Ottawa snubbed them, and the subsequent loss of Mirage stood to cost Canada $300-million. MacKay, normally quick to acquiesce, told reporters it was a huge mistake. He faced the cameras wearing an Emirates Airlines cap. Despite knowing how Harper treats his internal critics, MacKay did not seem afraid.

When strongman governments collapse, the disintegration often starts from within. Though Ed Stelmach’s fall owes to many things, an important moment came in July 2009, when long-time Tory loyalist Guy Boutilier publicly complained about the lack of a long-term care centre in Fort McMurray, and Stelmach kicked him out of the Tory caucus. Soon after, Calgary-North Hill MLA Kyle Fawcett also went public with criticisms. Fawcett’s scheduled appointment to the Treasury Board was cancelled. Next came a by-election in the Tory stronghold of Calgary-Glenmore. Not only did the Tories lose to the Wildrose Alliance, they came third. When Danielle Smith was elected Wildrose leader, Stelmach’s Tories plummeted in the polls.

Late that fall, Stelmach had to face a leadership review at the PC convention. Ralph Klein waded into affairs and set the bar at 70 per cent; if Stelmach’s approval rating was lower than that, Klein predicted he would have to quit. Stelmach got 77 per cent—enough to stick around as leader but less than a ringing endorsement.

By year-end, the Wildrose Alliance was leading the Conservatives in the polls. A few days into 2010, two Calgary-area PC MLAs, Rob Anderson and Heather Forsyth, crossed the floor. Six months later, Wildrose also collected Boutilier.

In the shadows behind the voter polls was another kind of poll: donations to Alberta political parties. In Alberta, the limit is $15,000, highest in Canada. Corporations and unions are allowed to contribute. While the PC party was being clipped in the polls, it was also losing donations. The oil industry sent Stelmach a message: raise our royalties and you’ll get nothing. When the Tories restored the old, low royalty regime, contributions jumped back to normal. Carrot and stick.

In November 2010, Alberta’s usual political serenity exploded. While Stelmach led trade missions to India and evangelized on behalf of the pristine oil sands, his province’s citizens started to boil about healthcare. For years, doctors had been complaining about the crush in hospital ERs. What the PCs had done about it was roll all the province’s health boards into one and hire an expensive economist out of Australia to get escalating health budgets under control.

When Stephen Duckett took over the superboard, a glaring problem was a nurse shortage—1,500 short. After looking at the books, Duckett declared there was no nurse shortage. Duckett was working in the long term, the crisis was in the short term, and the inevitable blow-up came when Conservative MLA Dr. Raj Sherman went public with a spate of criticism.

Besides being an MLA, Dr. Sherman worked one day a week in an Edmonton ER. His criticisms came from that experience, and from his own father having had five near-death experiences in which Alberta’s notorious wait times played a part. Sherman continued to criticize and Stelmach got rid of him. Sherman believes a Tory whisper campaign alleging he is mentally unstable began shortly thereafter. Repression’s oldest trick: those who criticize are insane.

That same week, the government was set to announce changes to the healthcare system. On the day, reporters gathered around Stephen Duckett. He brushed them off, citing his need to eat his cookie. A video of the moment went viral. Soon, Duckett was gone too, as was the myth of the arm’s-length health board. Four board members resigned over government interference.

Two months later, facing still another rebellion, this time over a deficit budget and led by the person most hungry for his job, Steady Eddy threw in the towel. Still holding an enormous majority in the legislature, he called a news conference and announced plans to resign.

Is there a connection between Stephen Harper’s and Ed Stelmach’s apparent indifference to democratic traditions? After years of pointing out that Harper isn’t actually from Alberta, I have to admit that the likely common source of his and Stelmach’s lack of democratic instinct is Alberta. As politicians, both men were forged here: Stelmach in the schoolhouse of Alberta municipal politics, Harper in the University of Calgary (specifically, the right-wing U of C sub-cult known as “The Calgary School”). While I doubt that Harper was channelling William Aberhart when he decided to stonewall the press, or that Stelmach had Ernest Manning in mind when he restored the oil industry’s cheap ride, it is still true that both men came of age in the one-party, one-strongman ethos that characterizes Alberta more than any other jurisdiction in Confederation.

Ed Stelmach’s key influence was Ralph Klein, especially in Klein’s later days when he ruled more like an eccentric monarch than a democratic premier. Harper’s mentors (Tom Flanagan, Ted Morton et al.) share a libertarian stripe that believes small government is good and no government is better. Harper’s Straussian kitbag (secrecy, elitism, keeping the mob/electorate confused and at bay) may have been borne north by US-trained professors, but these ideas took root in Calgary because of Alberta’s political traditions. That cannot be denied.

It might be worth noting, though, that the only one of Harper’s mentors who had truly Albertan political roots was Preston Manning, and it was he that Harper turned against most resolutely. Preston’s inherited principles of grassroots prairie populism and anti-elitism were just some old Reform dust that Harper polished off his boots on the march to Ottawa.

The fact that Harper and Stelmach have reached for the same levers in times of trouble—limiting access to information; bullying and firing those who criticize—may be nothing more than a shared control freakishness. Neither man likes loose ends, unmanaged risks. Harper rehearses for Question Period so that he can “win” every day. Stelmach answered the questions from the leader of the opposition, then fled. Harper prorogues Parliament to escape it. Stelmach limited the days the Legislature sat (to a mere 19 this past fall, only 14 of which he bothered to show up for). It adds up to the same thing.

In the end, the main reason Stelmach acted against democratic freedom may simply have been that he was innocent of it. Forty years of uninterrupted one-party rule will do that to a mind. Harper cannot claim that defence. His elitism and obsession with control are deliberately chosen.

Both Stephen Harper and Ed Stelmach have endangered the values and traditions that were put into their hands for safekeeping. An important difference is that Alberta without Stelmach may turn out to be less democratic, when the libertarians start carving. Canada minus Harper would be nothing but improved.

Fred Stenson’s most recent book, The Great Karoo, was a Governor General’s Award finalist (2008) and longlisted for the IMPAC Award.


Why She Runs

It's a half hour before dawn when Rachel Notley emerges from her hotel elevator, and I barely recognize her. She’s wearing her running clothes and a battered pair of Asics Gel running shoes. Despite having arrived in Calgary late the night before, she has a schedule to keep and she’s eager ...

The Takeover

At 5:20 p.m. on October 28, 2017, minutes before the accidental, and then the official announcement of the winner of the United Conservative Party’s (UCP) first-ever leadership race, blue and white balloons hung in a net above a brightly lit stage at the BMO Centre at the Calgary Stampede grounds ...

Our Surprising Premier

Alison Redford was a bit late to the party when she appeared, rainbow sash over black top, at Calgary Pride’s post-parade festival on September 2. From the stage at the downtown park, the premier explained she had missed the afternoon’s parade because she was in Edmonton, celebrating the legislature building’s ...