Fear Factor: Tales from Alberta politics

The recent “revelations” that the provincial Tories do not take kindly to anyone who disagrees with them is nothing new to opposition members.

First there was Little Dougie Griffiths’ petulant, fot-stomping letter to the AUMA after a perceived slight from Linda Sloan. And now, a letter from Hector Goudreau, the soon-to-be-retired-by-the-electorate MLA from Dunevegan-Central Peace has emerged, whereby Goudreau sternly lectures the Holy Family Catholic School Division to play nice, or they won’t get their school repaired.

The letter from Goudreau was only surprising in that it was so badly written. Rural Alberta folks know that you don’t question your PC MLA if you want anything from the government. 

The Goudreau letter reminded me that I wrote an article for the late, lamented SEE magazine back in 2008 about how the Tories keep the rural folks in line. It’s still pretty interesting reading (I think), so here it is again. 

We called it the Fear Factor.

We Alberta Liberal MLAs found many Albertans were terrified to talk to members of the Official Opposition caucus. A lot of rural Albertans would rather be seen with Klansmen than with Liberals. 

What were they afraid of? You name it.  

They were afraid of losing their government contracts. 

They were afraid of losing funding for their pet project. 

They were just afraid of the Tories, period.

Here’s and example, just one of many.

A rural group came to Edmonton a while back to bend the ear of a minister. From there, they had made an appointment to talk to the corresponding Liberal critic (or ‘shadow minister’, as we so pompously started to call ourselves when we thought we could form a government). While the critic’s office was in the Annex building, that wretched Soviet architecture-style building that houses MLAs and staff, that was no more than a two-minute walk from the minister’s office in the Legislature, the group insisted on meeting in the critic’s constituency office some distance away. Why? They were afraid that the minister might see them walking over to the Annex to consort with the enemy. This was not an isolated incident. 

After nearly 40 years with the same party in power, the majority of people in this province have never experienced anything other than Conservative rule. The Tories have become so ingrained into the psyche of Albertans, particularly those in rural Alberta, that the Progressive Conservative Party and the Government of Alberta have become one in the same, a two-headed beast that giveth and taketh away, and one you most definitely do not want to piss off.

The Conservatives have convinced rural Albertans that a vote for a Tory is a vote for a playground, or a newly paved road, or a spiffy new government building. Many rural Albertans are convinced that if you were to elect a Liberal, funding for your town would disappear faster than arts funding from Stephen Harper. 

In order to give the impression that they are the only party out there, the Tories go to great lengths to marginalize opposition MLAs, mostly by pretending they don’t exist. My favourite story of the death-grip the Tories have on rural Alberta involves the Big Valley Jamboree down Camrose way, the Woodstock for the country crowd.

We had never been invited to Big Valley, although our PC brethren were, as a matter of course. One year, to our shock, we received invitations. I didn’t go (camping and country music are as appealing a mix to me as … well, I can’t think of a less appealing combination) but one of our MLAs, Rick Miller, did. 

Our MLA met with one of the organizers at a Big Valley hospitality tent. The organizer, mistaking him for a Tory, admitted that the organizers had mistakenly invited Liberals, and wanted to know if he thought it was OK? Our guy, naturally, told him it was a great idea, and thanked him.

Our MLA wrote a nice thank you note to the Big Valley people, encouraging them to invite opposition MLAs again. Apparently, it did not sit well with the Tory powers that be, and we were not invited back. 

It’s one thing to be not invited to an event, but it’s an entirely different thing to be de-invited to an event.

All MLAs were invited to a feedbag sponsored by an Alberta food producers group. It was to be held at the Old Timer’s Cabin, and was to feature a smorgasbord of Alberta-produced products, which means beef and beef related foodstuffs. I eagerly signed up for this one (note to readers: if you want an MLA to attend your event, promise food), as did a number of other Liberal MLAs. 

Some time later, a flunky from the organization phoned me to say that the invitation was a mistake, that opposition members were not invited, and that I should not come. This is like inviting someone to a wedding, then changing your mind and telling them they can’t come because some of the other guests don’t like them. I can only imagine what kind of pressure came to bear on this organization to force them to actually go through the humiliating process of withdrawing invitations. (I should say that, to the best of my knowledge, Edmonton’s big time organizations were very fair to opposition MLAs, frequently because we were the only ones who regularly showed up at events.)

As the 2007 election approached and the government was shifting into full bully mode, many Tories began to ignore the professional courtesies that are part of the MLA’s unwritten code of conduct. Being introduced at an event is a Big Deal to an MLA. If you go to a large dinner or a major public event, and the MC does not recognize your presence, you might as well not be there. Classier ministers always made sure to introduce even Alberta Liberal or New Democrat MLA in an audience. (I will always remember being introduced at a public meeting by then-minister Yvonne Fritz shortly after I was elected.) Less classy ministers – which is to say, most of them – would introduce their Tory brethren (even when they weren’t there, which happened regularly), but ignore opposition MLAs. 

Event MCs, often Tory sympathizers or insiders in this town, often did the same thing.

Does this sound petty? To you, perhaps, it is. But to a politician who depends on the goodwill of the voter for his job, it’s a very big deal. Odd as it may sound in this cynical age, it is still a big deal to many people to have an elected official show up at an event. Who didn’t show up is as important as those who did. 

That’s the life of a politician, reason no. 287 why I’m glad I’m out of it.    

PC race fueled by money the other parties can only dream of having.

I haven’t had much to say about the PC leadership race, being preoccupied with the Liberal race. I guess that’s like saying that I’ve been ignoring the Major League Baseball playoff races because I’ve been captivated by the Edmonton Capitals run to the North American League championship. That would be true if I watched baseball, which I don’t.

I also haven’t had much to say about the PC race because I really haven’t got a clue what’s going on inside that organization. The Tories play by a different set of rules, or, as Fitzgerald said, the rich are different from you and me.

For example, in the just completed Liberal race, the five candidates raised just over $100,000 between them.  Hugh MacDonald raised about half that total; winner Raj Sherman’s biggest donor was … Raj Sherman.

On the Tory side, Doug Griffiths is being lauded for running a “shoe string” campaign, spending about $100,000, That’s one guy. A shoe string campaign that raised almost as much as all five Liberal candidates.

Here’s another comparison. PC candidate Doug Horner is reporting that he has raised about $750,000, which is $100,000 more than the Liberals spent on an entire provincial election campaign in 2008.

Horner isn’t even the biggest of the big spenders in the PC race. Ted Morton says he has raised about a million dollars. Gary Mar, the presumed front runner (who had enough money to buy a full-page at in the Journal), and Alison Redford, the possible compromise candidate, are both reporting about half-million bucks raised. We don’t know how much future also-ran Rick Orman has wasted on his doomed campaign, so the totals aren’t in yet. But collectively, the five candidates will raise and spend about $3 million on the race.  And that’s just for the leadership. I don’t know what kind of money the Wildrose will be able to raise in the next election, but it won’t be remotely close to the kind of money Alberta’s businesses and economic elite will lavish on the Tories. The financial imbalance is by far the biggest obstacle opposition parties face in Alberta.

And what of the race itself? If the polls are any indication, Mar will lead after the first ballot. I doubt, with so many candidates, that he will score a first ballot victory. But he could easily score on the second round. Unlike Ed Stelmach’s unexpected win, there doesn’t seem to be anywhere near the polarization of the party between camps as there was in the Jim Dinning v. Ted Morton slugfest. I don’t see any room for a compromise candidate, a la Stelmach. If Mar doesn’t win it on the first ballot, I think he’ll win it on the second.

But what do I know? When Ed Stelmach announced that he was going to run for the PC leadership, I honestly didn’t know what he looked like — and I was an MLA at the time. So nothing outside of a Rick Orman victory would surprise me on Saturday.

Ranking the Tory race: the early line

So the field is set for the semi-annual running of the PC Leadership Derby. And what a field it is! Up and comers, and people who think they are up and comers. Former stars and has beens, the too young and the too old. It’s an interesting (although not exactly inspiring) group.

With a couple of months to go before the PCs pick their new leader, and by extension our new leader, it’s still too soon to tell who’s leading the pack. All of the pundits who made their predictions the last time the Tories went through this exercise are staying rather silent this time, partly because it is a wide open race, and party because nobody has any real idea who’s ahead. And everybody’s looking for the next Ed Stelmach.

Ah, but what the hell. Let’s do some handicapping anyway.

Gary Mar 

Pros: Smart, personable, experienced at a high government level, including five cabinet posts. The only non-Caucasian in the race could give him an appeal to ethnic voters. Untainted by the stumbling Stelmach regime. From Calgary, and we all know that Calgarians think it’s their turn. Has strong caucus support, in numbers if not in quality.

Cons: His fall from grace, the Kelly Charlebois scandal, hurts his image. For those who need a refresher, Charlebois was Mar’s former executive assistant who got more than $400,000 in untendered consulting contracts from Alberta Health when Mar was minister. Mar was demoted from the health portfolio, and took the first train out of town when the Washington position opened up. Presumed front-runner status not necessarily a good thing.  Remember Jim Dinning, everyone’s favourite future leader? Big city guy like Mar has limited appeal to rural Alberta.

Chances: Aside from the Charlebois fiasco, not many Xs on the negative ledger. Likely the guy to beat.

Alison Redford

Pros: The least conservative Conservative in the race, Redford will certainly appeal to the Progressive side of the Progressive Conservative party, if such a side still exists. Defuses one of Wildrose Alliance leader Danielle Smith’s most powerful weapons (lone female in a male dominated political scene), and could provide the starkest contrast to Smith’s brand of conservatism. Genuine Conservative bona fides, and a legit up and comer.

Cons: Again, the least conservative Conservative in the race, Redford will likely be anathema to red meat Conservatives. (She’s a human rights lawyer type, for crying out loud! What would Ezra Levant think?) Zero appeal to rural Alberta, a side of the party which still holds great sway. Minimal government experience may give some the impression she is trying too early for the brass ring, or, put more bluntly, she could come off as a pushy dame. (Hey, we’re talking Conservatives here.)

Chances: Pretty long, unless she really impresses the big city types. If I were a Tory voter, however, I’d give her serious consideration.

Ted Morton

Pros: If the provincial election comes down to who can out-conservative the other conservative leader, Morton has the edge. Morton makes Danielle Smith look like Janeane Garofalo. Only holdover from last PC leadership vote, Morton probably had his election campaign idling for the past few years. First to quit cabinet and announce his intention to run for the leadership, and when the winner is the person who sells the most memberships, that could be decisive. Certainly has the greatest appeal to rural Alberta.

Cons: Pretty old, with all the personality of a small town United Church minister. May be too conservative for many, and likely will alienate those who see Alberta as being a lot more (pardon my language) liberal than we’re made out to be. Has support from the likes of Carl Benito, Doug Elniski, and David Xiao. With friends like that …

Chances: Still pretty good, but fading. Best position to cash in on rural vote.

Doug Horner

Pros: Solid, reliable, steady. Closest thing to an Edmonton candidate in the race.  Lots of MLA support. Has solid main street cred with rural Albertans. Stands a good chance of being a compromise candidate.

Cons: Not exactly inspiring as a speaker. PCs will no doubt recall the last time the party opted for a solid, reliable, steady, compromise candidate. Nobody wants a Dependable Doug after the Steady Eddie era. Not exactly the face of change the party may need to present to fend off the Wildrosies.

Chances: Decent, certainly in the top three.

Doug Griffiths

Pros: Youngest guy in the race. Rural Alberta (and by that, I mean neither Edmonton or Calgary) candidate. Might appeal to younger Tory voters. Lots of MLA experience. Might be a good counter to Smith.

Cons: An MLA since he was 29, Griffiths doesn’t exactly have the world experience or gravitas the Tories might want.  Looks entirely unready for leadership.

Chances: Slim and none. Would finish last, if it were not for …

Rick Orman

Pros: One time major player in the Tory party. And that’s about it.

Cons: Vast majority of Albertans would react with a ‘Rick who?’ response if asked about him. Biggest claim to fame was that he was a Don Getty-era cabinet minister. That’s like saying you were in the Joe Clark government.

Chances: Hey, somebody’s got to come in last.

So, who’s on first? Without actually talking to any actual Conservatives, I’d have to divide the field into three groups: contenders (Mar, Morton, Horner), outside chancers (Redford) and no hopers (Griffiths, Orman).

But remember, I didn’t think Ed Stelmach had a chance either.