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The Year Alberta Stayed Home

This was to be the year Alberta embraced democracy. A look back on the little campaign that couldn’t.

By Darcy Henton

During a summer 2007 visit to Calgary—that provincial bastion of conservatism—Liberal party leader Kevin Taft was practically swept off his feet by the reception he got from strangers on the street. People honked at his vehicle and jumped out of cars and of bicycles to approach him and shake his hand. One person event followed him into a Dairy Queen to encourage him to keep up the good work.

“I… felt like a rock star,” he said. “I got—not just waved at—but practically stalked four different times.”

Everywhere Taft looked, he saw indications that politics in Alberta was about to change. There was a wave of discontent such that even some Conservatives feared their 37-year dynasty, like the 36-year dynasty of the Social Credit Party they replaced, was in peril. Albertans weren’t upset over just one issue, they were frustrated over numerous issues from Premier Ed Stelmach’s new oil and gas royalty regime and his policy on climate change, to crowded hospital emergency rooms, escalating utility bills, a housing crisis and crumbling provincial infrastructure. Almost everyone had a beef about something.

But the real source of opposition optimism came from the desire for change as expressed in polls. Pollsters were forecasting another Tory majority, but there was so much anxiety, so many doubts about polling’s accuracy and so many undecided voters that anything seemed possible.

Taft’s MLAs in Edmonton reported turnouts in the hundreds at constituency barbecues—a surge in grassroots support that Liberals hadn’t seen in awhile. When Edmonton MLA Bill Bonko walked into Taft’s once to report that 600 people had attended a constituency barbecue, the Liberal leader was almost giddy. “I thought to myself, wow, that’s a great turnout,” Taft said to the Edmonton Journal just before the election call. “If we do go on to success in this election, I’ll look back on that conversation and say, in hindsight, I could see that’s when the tide began to turn.”

The 52-year-old politician, author and former government researcher hadn’t expected to take the Liberals to victory in 2004 against the country’s most popular premier, Ralph Klein. But by 2008, the leader Kevin Taft once described as “a colossus” was gone. The Tories were led this time by a little-known cabinet minister who some people dubbed “the antithesis of charismatic.”

While Taft was confident, he was not cocky. The governing party in Alberta had only been displaced three times in 103 the election. “But I think they’re better this time than they’ve been in many years.”

A 56-year-old former county reeve, Stelmach had stunned Conservatives with his come-from-nowhere victory in the 2006 party leadership contest, beating pre-race favourite Jim Dinning on a second ballot, second-choice vote count. During the leadership campaign, Stelmach made a number of promises and he spent his first 14 months in the premier’s once trying to fulfill them. He set up task forces and blue-ribbon committees to recommend solutions to the province’s mounting problems. Portraying himself as “an activist premier,” he also set out long-term plans to deal with the boom-induced labour shortage, the multibillion dollar infrastructure backlog, climate change and regional planning roadblocks—all moves designed to solve problems and address criticism that his government had no plan to deal with Alberta’s explosive growth.

A week before the writ dropped, Mary Moore, who spearheaded Klein’s four campaigns, boldly predicted an 11th straight Conservative majority. But he was worried the voter apathy among Tory supporters that had cost Klein’s government seats in 2004 would resurface. “I don’t think the Liberals or the NDP are exciting anybody too much,” he said. “The real enemy is apathy among Conservative supporters. If they don’t come out to vote, you don’t win.”

Sign of the times? An Edmonton seniors lodge shows events competing for Albertans' attention.

Sign of the times? An Edmonton seniors lodge shows events competing for Albertans’ attention. (Jason Markusoff)

The Lougheed-era cabinet minister warned Stelmach not to follow the example of the previous campaign, which political analysts dubbed “Kleinfeld”—a campaign about nothing. “If you want to get people out to vote, you can’t run a dull, quiet, boring campaign,” he said. “You have to stir up a little excitement.” Going into the election, the Tories held 60 of the Assembly’s 83 seats. Many political analysts, including Klein himself, predicted that the dynasty would continue but that Stelmach would lose seats. The only question was how many.

In the days leading up to the February 4 Throne Speech, Stelmach rolled out his agenda, including scores of funding announcements totalling nearly $2-billion. The Tories also ensured there wouldn’t be labour strife during the campaign by agreeing to assume the $2.1-billion teachers’ pension liability in exchange for five years of labour peace. Stelmach countered opposition calls for “change” by promising to be a vehicle for sensible,” rather than “radical,” change—for “change that works for Albertans.” The Conservative leader capped his platform with a Throne Speech pledge to phase out Alberta healthcare premiums over four years, saving each Alberta family $1,056 a year at a cost to the provincial treasury of more than $900-million annually. The move stole the opposition parties’ thunder, as both the Liberals and NDP had long been calling for an end to a healthcare tax that only residents of Alberta and two other provinces pay. Immediately following the Throne Speech, the premier dropped the writ. “It’s time for Albertans to decide who they trust to manage Alberta’s growth and to make the most of Alberta’s unique moment in history,” he told reporters before heading out into –20-degree temperatures to start campaigning.

Despite all of the preplanning, Stelmach got off to a bumpy start. His use of the legislature media studio and his choice of March 3 for the vote were immediately slammed as affronts to legislature protocol and disrespect for the four Mayerthorpe Mounties killed on that same date three years previously. On the first official day of the campaign, the College of Physicians & Surgeons pointed out that the premier’s promise of 225 additional graduates annually from Alberta’s medical schools was not logistically achievable. Over the next few days, Stelmach’s daycare platform was slammed by mothers at a Red Deer daycare centre and his royalty framework got a rough ride from oilpatch workers in Drayton Valley. To top off a bad week, one of his own candidates in Calgary,former TV journalist Arthur Kent, lobbed verbal Scud missiles at the premier for ducking a fundraising breakfast.

Week two was no better. Stelmach was heckled by environmentalists over his “destructive” climate change policy, forced to justify his government’s process for selecting election returning officers and required to defend his government’s decision to impose caps on claims for soft-tissue auto injuries after the courts ruled the move unconstitutional. Stelmach deflected the auto insurance issue by immediately announcing his government would appeal the court ruling, and he eventually offered to look into hanging the returning officer selection process when it was revealed that party officials nominated prospective returning officers. But he didn’t see a problem with prominent Tories running election polling stations. “Are you saying anybody I shake hands with, the optics are they can’t ever serve as a deputy returning officer?” he asked. “I think that is brutally unfair.” In another province, the premier might have been in trouble.

But Stelmach received a polite reception at most stops as he bused around Alberta. He received a jacket from the agriculture society in Strathmore, even as the town’s seniors expressed dismay over problems in the healthcare system and delays in the delivery of a promised nursing home. Niels Bach, 77, told the premier about driving thousands of kilometres to visit his ailing wife, who was forced to stay in a nursing home in another community because there was no place in her hometown. “It’s a shame people spend all their productive years in a community… and when you need care, you’re shipped out,” said Bach. But both Bach and fellow resident Woodrow Nelson, 90 and in a similar situation with his wife in a Calgary facility, explained that they still planned to support the Tories. “They can’t do any worse than the NDP or any other damn outfit,” said Nelson.

It was the same story in Fort Macleod a few days later, where residents expressed frustration over a lack of healthcare services, but a willingness to give the Tories, under Stelmach, their vote. “Let’s see what he does,” said Alan Parnham, a 71year-old retired engineer. “Everybody deserves a chance.”

Mark Lisac, publisher of the weekly newsletter Insight into Government, thought during the campaign that Stelmach’s missteps weren’t likely to be fatal. “People look at him and see an honest guy working hard for the province,” he said. “He takes damage only if people doubt his honesty and good intentions.”

But the opposition pounded the Conservatives on many fronts, trying to seize upon an issue that would grab voters’ attention. NDP leader Brian Mason led the assault on the Tories’ royalty deal, claiming Stelmach’s plan failed to claim $4billion that belonged to Albertans, not to Big Oil. But polls were showing royalties were no longer an issue with most Albertans.

The Liberals went into the campaign with the slogan “It’s Time,” borrowing from Peter Lougheed’s “Now” campaign that propelled the Tories into once in 1971. But voters didn’t appear to be taking up the mantra. The Liberals made more than 20 promises in the first week of the campaign, but nothing seemed to resonate. Some even back fired. The Conservatives and the NDP alike ridiculed the Liberals over their promise to phase out popular natural gas rebates.

Wildrose Alliance Party leader Paul Hinman stuck mostly to his riding of Cardston-Taber-Warner, where he was in a dogfight to retain his party’s lone seat against Broyce Jacobs, the Tory he defeated in 2004. Green Party leader George Read and Social Credit leader Len Skowronski also ran fairly lowkey campaigns. The latter two were excluded from the February 21 leaders’ debate, but the 90-minute verbal sparring session didn’t appear to have much impact on the outcome of the vote. Taft, Mason and Hinman ganged up on Stelmach, and Taft and Mason took shots at each other, but no one could land the proverbial “knockout.” By most pundits’ accounts, Stelmach won the leaders debate simply by surviving it.

At a rally in Edmonton shortly after the debate, Stelmach told supporters he believed his party could win back the city from the opposition. “They used to call it Redmonton,” he announced. “I have a feeling [that] on March 3 we’re going to put the ‘Ed’ back in Edmonton.”

It was a bold prediction, but Stelmach had been getting seat projection numbers from pollster Janet Brown, who forecast the Conservatives would win 73 seats and take back most of the seats in the capital. But it was difficult to believe the Tories could get that kind of support amid all the swirling angst. “Analysts were just getting caught up in the whole idea of change and all the concerns,” explains Brown. “Although people were complaining and giving candidates a hard time at the door, what the analysts failed to realize was the people making the complaints were not going so far as to say ‘They have lost my vote.’ ”

When the dust settled on March 3, Stelmach’s Conservatives had steamrolled the opposition and won an astonishing 72 of 83 seats in the provincial legislature. While most analysts had their eyes on Calgary, where the Liberals made only a marginal gain, Stelmach scored a major coup in Edmonton. He picked up 10 new seats to lock up 13 of the city’s 18 ridings. He lost only two seats in Calgary, where the Liberals now hold five of 23 ridings.

Mark Lisac says the size of Stelmach’s majority will give him “more immunity” from the media, who saw him as an easy target previously. “A long season of quiet is about to descend,” he predicts.

Even more surprising was that only 41 per cent of eligible voters bothered to cast their ballots—a record-low turnout, the lowest in Canada’s history for a provincial election. Where were the voters? Why did so many stay home? Former Reform Party leader Preston Manning, who heads the Manning Centre for Building Democracy, called the low turnout “disturbing” and proposed the establishment of a citizens’ assembly to investigate the problem and prescribe a remedy. Some academics called for mandatory voting laws like Australia’s.

What happened to the underlying desire for change? What happened to the wave of discontent? Former Liberal MLA Ed Gibbons theorizes that voters in Edmonton decided it was better to sit at “Ed’s table” than elect the opposition. Former Liberal leader Ken Nicol, the man Taft replaced, agrees with pollster Janet Brown that when voters said they wanted change, they wanted a change in the way government was operating: “When it came down to putting a mark on a piece of paper, they said ‘Ed has changed. Let’s keep him there. He’s doing things.’ ”

Brown says the election was a period of reckoning for lifetime Conservatives. “This election forced a lot of people to decide ‘Am I a lifelong Tory or not?’ ” she says. “Despite everything that happened, at the end of the day… they scratched their red necks and saw blue blood.” Mark Lisac says Alberta is unique because voters do not think of political parties as a choice, they think of them as an identity: “They think they are Conservative.”

And what happened to the shift in momentum toward the Liberals that Taft felt prior to the race? Bonko and two other MLAs with huge summer barbecue turnouts were among the Liberals who lost their seats.

Conservative insider Hal Danchilla contends that Tory campaign chair Randy Dawson ran a brilliant campaign and the Liberals simply collapsed: “I just don’t think the people were buying what they were selling.”

Taft maintains that his party ran the best campaign it could with the resources it had. “The Tories had a multi-million- dollar war chest,” he said on election night. “We had no war chest at all. It was very tough to get our message out.”

Re-elected Liberal MLA David Swann is calling for an overhaul that includes all aspects of the party—even its name. “It strikes me that we’re really struggling in a fog,” he says. Other Liberals, such as former Edmonton-McClung MLA Mo Elsalhy, are calling for a coalition of the left—an idea that has been rejected by both Taft and Mason.

Mount Royal College political analyst Keith Brownsey believes Taft’s days as Liberal leader are numbered. “Kevin Taft wasn’t able to connect with voters during the campaign,” he says. “It’s not a question of if Kevin Taft goes, but when.” Taft’s response is that he plans to do what is best for the party and for Alberta. “I’ve worked very hard to rebuild this party and this organization,” he says. “The last thing I want is for us to take three steps backward.” The party is expected to hold a leadership review later this year.

Taft and his nine-member opposition vow to continue working to hold the government accountable during the spring sitting. He warns that the Stelmach government must expedite its greenhouse gas emission control program or face the wrath of a world market hungry for “greener” fuel. Election polls showed Albertans agree that Stelmach isn’t doing enough to curb greenhouse gases.

There’s less angst in the NDP camp over the loss of two of the party’s four seats. Mason plans to keep representing “ordinary Albertans” as long as his party wants him. “It’s often the person who draws the short straw that stays on as leader,” he quips.

Mason blames union-funded TV attack ads against Stelmach for his party’s disappointing result: “They helped the Conservatives more than they hurt [them].” He believes that if a fraction of the money spent on the ads had been funnelled into the campaigns of his two defeated New Democrats (David Eggen and former party leader Ray Martin), they would have retained their seats.

But Alberta Federation of Labour president Gil McGowan believes his union and its partners in the ad campaign, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees and the Alberta Building Trades Council, don’t have to apologize. “We didn’t do this out of spite or out of any kind of mindless partisanship,” he says. “We decided to get involved because we sincerely felt Albertans are going in a dangerous direction and the PCs [have] failed to provide the leadership we need.”

McGowan says he didn’t think the ads “backfired,” but concedes they didn’t do what they were intended to do. “Did we make a mistake by targeting Ed Stelmach personally?” he asks. “Obviously, there are some questions we’ll have to address about the way the ads were crafted, but we’re still convinced that we did the right thing by getting involved in this election, especially given the low voter turnout.”

One political analyst suggests that Stelmach, whose leadership had been questioned in some Tory circles, is now “invincible.” Lisac says the size of Stelmach’s majority will give him “more immunity” from the media, who saw him as an easy target previously. “A long season of quiet is about to descend,” Lisac predicts. The opposition, reduced in size by half, will have to hold the government accountable with a smaller research budget, because the size of their budget is tied to seats.

Visions of Alberta’s future under the massive Stelmach majority are mixed. The premier won accolades for his new cabinet, which provides more urban and female representation and cultural diversity. Although people grumbled over the fact that Calgary got six ministers compared to the capital’s three, Edmonton city councillor Karen Leibovici, a former Liberal MLA, believes the city and region (which have a combined six ministers) should still fare well under Stelmach. “He has a good feel for the region because he’s from this area,” she says.

Swann remains hopeful Stelmach will bring key issues to all party committees to find solutions rather than work behind closed doors to make decisions. “I think he’s a decent man and I think we can work with him,” he says. But Mo Elsalhy fears the Tories “will be cocky and totally dismissive” of the opposition. “This is bad for the province and bad for democracy,” he warns.

Although Stelmach contends his government’s initial plan to privatize healthcare is dead, his appointment of fiscal hawk Ron Liepert as health minister alarms supporters of the public health system. “The Tories see this big majority as an opportunity to do something they’ve been trying to do for a decade,” says re-elected Edmonton-Gold Bar Liberal MLA Hugh MacDonald. He also predicts skyrocketing electricity costs, power shortages and even blackouts under the new Stelmach regime.

McGowan, too, worries about dark days ahead. He said Albertans may feel comfortable now because the economy is strong, but people may end up regretting their decision to continue the Tory dynasty. “Once all the big projects are built, what will be left?” he asks. “If all we have left is a bunch of pipelines shipping jobs south with our oil, we’ll have a big problem on our hands and people will wonder why they voted for a party without a clear oilsands policy.”

Darcy Henton has been covering Alberta politics since 1994 and is a past president of the Alberta Legislature Press Gallery.

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