Worst. Leadership race. Ever.

Somewhere in my collection of flotsam and jetsam of old newspaper clippings from my youth, I have the famous Edmonton Journal paper from the day after the Progressive Conservatives, under Peter Lougheed, finally toppled the Social Credit dynasty. The headline, written in massive type in true Tory blue, read: “Now! It’s Lougheed!”

Now, as the longest reigning Canadian provincial government in Canadian history staggers to the finish line of its third leadership race in eight years, the most likely headline should be “Finally … it’s Prentice.” 

On Saturday, the PCs will announce the winner of their leadership race, and if all goes according to plans (and polls), the new man will be Jim Prentice, another Calgarian with extensive ties to The Industry. (Calgary, it seems, produces leaders or would-be leaders; Edmonton produces opponents. Good thing somebody does.)  As everyone knows, the PCs are in disarray. After 43 years in power, the party seems to be suffering from the political equivalent of early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. If you were to lay a bet right now, it would seem the wise choice to put your money on the odds-on favourite in the 2016 election, Wildrose leader Danielle Smith.

But wait! The PC party obit has been written more often than Mark Twain’s. (Twain, after a premature obit appeared, famously said: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”) In some ways, when Prentice takes over the party, he will be in a better position than Alison Redford.

Redford, you may recall (and it seems almost impossible to believe, considering how far she had fallen), took over with sky-high hopes. Finally, the progressives cheered, a truly progressive Progressive Conservative. A worldly, big-city lawyer — and a woman! (I had a feeling the Liberals were in trouble when a long-time Liberal operative I know greeted the election of Redford not with dread, but with unbridled joy.)

Redford was, shall we say, a bit of a disappointment. The party Prentice inherits is in disarray, bedevilled by a series of puny, travel-related scandals and a general sense of exhaustion. While Redford started on a high with great expectations, Prentice starts with the party at a low ebb. In other words, nowhere to go but up.

(I write this based on my assumption that Prentice wins. If either of the two lame-duck candidates — professional dunderhead Ric McIver, or the slithering Thomas Lukaszuk — somehow wins, you can dust off that PC obit and run it today. If Prentice wins, we can happily write the long overdue obit of Lukaszuk.)

Prentice actually has some potential. After the feckless farmer Ed Stelmach, and the patrician Redford, all Prentice has to do is play the hard-nosed businessman type and ground the government’s silly fleet of airplanes. (By the way, this ‘scandal’ of Finance Minister Doug Horner taking his wife on the occasional plane ride is a whole lot of nothing. If there was an empty seat on the plane, as I assume there was on the times she went along, the actual cost to the taxpayer is nil. This is small change.) Alberta, after all, is in pretty good financial shape, and to most voters, that’s all that matters. Once Prentice realizes that he had billions of dollars to throw at any problem — health care, education, whatever the problem du jour is — he will make these problems go away in time for the next election. 

Once this dreadful, uneventful, petty leadership ‘”race” is officially over, Prentice can get down to business. His first order of business will be, of course, business. Get to work, avoid trivial scandals, and the Tories can easily extend their record setting longevity streak. The Wildrose is always just one dip into the lake of fire away from reminding the public of their extremist roots, as we saw in the last election. 

(By the way, the New Democrats are also holding a leadership vote, pitting the earnest Rachel Notley against the earnest David Eggen, and somebody else who is, I assume, earnest. Just thought I should mention it.)

 

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.

Sherman ouster deserved, but a mistake

For a while, it looked like Raj Sherman had dodged the bullet.

Sure, he blasted the health care system in no uncertain terms. But after Sherman has a let’s-all-cry-like-men meeting with the Tory caucus, all was forgiven. He was under stress, he wrote the now notorious email at 3 a.m., and it wasn’t meant for public  consumption. Just a bad day at the office for a good guy.

And it would have stayed that way, too, if he hadn’t Boutiliered.

Guy Boutilier, the former Tory MLA for whom the term ‘Boutiliered’ has been named (by me, just now) was famously tossed from the Stelmach cabinet in July for saying Energy Minister Ron Liepert was “talking gibberish” and suggesting that he should have been in cabinet because he is a Harvard grad. Arrogance is not worthy of expulsion, but criticising a fellow MLA — and a powerful, thin skinned, notoriously nasty one at that — is just not done. He deserved to be tossed. It’s one thing to defend your constituents, but you can’t do it while belittling the other members of your team.

So Sherman was doing fine at first. He blasted the system, then he took a run at the men who run the system, blaming them for “knuckleheaded” decisions. OK, that was a bit of a low blow, but still, his buddies on the team were unscathed.

But it wasn’t until Sherman took aim at Liepert — again — that Sherman sealed his fate, blaming the former health minister for being “rude and offensive” to front line medical staff.

Sure, Liepert no doubt was rude and offensive to health care workers. He’s basically rude and offensive to everyone; that’s what he does. He’s the Dick Cheney of Alberta politics, and apparently just about as powerful. But the comments were pointless and personal.

As Boutilier discovered, you can stick up for constituents, you can blast the civil service, but never, NEVER criticize one of your own. Consider if a benchwarmer on the Eskimos said QB Ricky Ray was a jerk. Or if a fourth-liner on the Oilers called Ales Hemsky a lazy so-and-so. That would be the end of his career, and rightly so. And so it is with Sherman.

I don’t know if Sherman overplayed his hand, didn’t recognize what he was saying was going to get him in trouble, or did it deliberately. But he threw down the gauntlet to Stelmach, who promptly picked it up, slapped Sherman in the face, and sent him packing.

Mistake? Yes and no.

If a backbench MLA steps out of line and doesn’t apologize, he deserves to get turfed. You can’t have members of your own team badmouthing other members of the team for public consumption. But, in this case, the Tories overreacted. If they had let the matter rest, his “rude and offensive” comments would have been forgotten. Somebody should have pulled Ron Liepert aside and said, “Suck it up, princess. Take one for the team.”

Even is Sherman deserved getting kicked out, it was a mistake. Now, instead of having a loose cannon under your control, you’ve got a loose cannon firing back at you. This is sure to backfire.

Passion and posturing in the Legislature.

I’ll say this for Ed Stelmach — the guy has all the political instincts of a squirrel.

Wednesday’s QP was an example of Stelmach at his worst.

Liberal leader David Swann was asking some very pointed questions about long term care.

“The Premier likes to talk about not splitting up senior couples when they need long-term care, but the much bigger problem we’re hearing about is three people squeezed like sardines into rooms built for two,” Swann stated. “We’re not talking about the remand centre here; we’re talking about our public health system. To the Premier. It’s become common practice in Alberta Hospitals today to squeeze three patients into rooms built for two. Is the Premier aware of this? How does he justify it?”

Anyone with an ounce of political savvy would have expressed regret at the situation, vowed to repair the system, blah blah blah. But not our Eddie.

Mr. Speaker,” Stelmach stammered, “a bit of an irony here because when we were attempting originally to move patients from Alberta Hospital, from multiple patients in one room to a facility that gave individuals their private bedrooms, more green space, better accommodations, that party opposed it. Now they’re saying that, well, that’s not the right thing to do.”

Well, that got Edmonton-Riverview Liberal MLA Kevin Taft, former leader of the party, genuinely livid.  Here’s what was said right after Stelmach’s answer:

Dr. Taft: Oh, come on, Ed.

Mr. Stelmach: Well, they’ll have to decide where they stand on this particular issue.

Dr. Taft: You know perfectly well that in acute-care rooms people are squeezed in three to a two-person room.

The Speaker: The hon. leader.

Dr. Swann: Mr. Speaker . . .

Dr. Taft: Don’t evade these life-and-death issues so badly.

The Speaker: Hon. leader, would you just tap the hon. Member for Edmonton-Riverview on the shoulder? You have the floor.

Dr. Taft: It’s offensive. This Premier is offensive.

The Speaker: The hon. leader has the floor.

Dr. Taft: He’s offensive to the people of Alberta.

The Speaker: The hon. leader has the floor. Edmonton-Riverview, if you want to take over, you go and fight that out behind these doors, but the hon. Leader of the Official Opposition has the floor.

This exchange, along with Pope Kenneth The Infallible’s snippy little cheap shot, really riled up Swann.

The Premier continues to dismiss these issues and talk around the issue rather than addressing the question. Albertans are not fooled. This Energy minister is the cause of the problems in the health care system today. Unbelievable. His arrogance and incompetence created such suffering in this province, and he sits over there and laughs. You should be ashamed of yourself. Why don’t you staff the beds that are needed so that we stop this squeezing of three patients into two-bed rooms?”

The energy minister is, of course, Ron Liepert, Stelmach’s disastrous previous choice for health minister. I couldn’t see Liepert, but I can well imagine him snickering away at the exchange. That’s the kind of guy he is.

You don’t often see real passion in the dog-and-pony show that is the legislature, but this was the genuine article.

Less genuine were questions from a couple of Edmonton MLAs, who were apparently trying to show that they can be tough on the government, too. Last week, I pointed out how some rural MLAs weren’t afraid to ask tough questions. Edmonton-Decore’s Janice Sarich, and Edmonton-McClung’s David Xiao tried to play tough on Wednesday, with embarrassing results.

In questioning  Housing Minister Jonathan Denis, Sarich was apparently trying to say that there was too much social housing in Edmonton. I guess she was. Read it yourself and try to figure it out:

“Several communities in Edmonton have repeatedly raised concerns over housing projects in their communities and have come to the realization that these concerns, quite frankly, are not making a lot of progress. My questions are for the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs. What will the minister do to slow the growth of government-funded housing projects in Edmonton communities?”

Sarich was actually asking the housing minister to build LESS government-funded housing in Edmonton. Fewer homes for those who are struggling. Fewer homes for the disadvantaged. Incredible.

She followed that up with this garbled question: “Given that it’s not very appropriate to ignore community concerns, the community would like to know: why won’t this minister recognize that there seems to be a growing disconnect between the concerns of the community and the wishes of the residents and the will of government to have a concentration of low income housing in Edmonton?”

Sarich, I suppose, was trying to make a point that there is a lot of social housing in Edmonton, maybe more than there should be. If that was the case, she should have backed it up with numbers and some reasons why this is a bad thing. She botched her questions badly.

Worse, however, was the shamelessly self-serving and disingenuous series of questions from Xiao.

Xiao, the wealthy international man of mystery, jumped to the defence of a core constituency of his middle-to-upper middle class constituency — panhandlers.

Speaking in a way that indicates Xiao may have no mother tongue, Xiao asked the housing minister this baffling question:

“The Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs was very outspoken about the panhandling issue this past spring and promised action by this fall. Since then, the Calgary Homeless Foundation released a report saying that panhandling, according to the research, is not an issue. My questions are to the minister. How long has this minister been out of step with one of the biggest stakeholders, and why does he pick on such a disadvantaged section of society?”

WTF?

Denis responded by “that report does not indicate that panhandling is not an issue. It indicates that instances of it have gone down.“

Xiao, not content to look foolish with one question, waded in with another.

This minister promised action this fall. It’s now mid-November. To the minister: are you doing anything about panhandling, or are you planning more grandstanding?”

Man, talk about the pot calling the kettle black. Xiao racing to the defence of panhandlers, something he has never mentioned in the past, is the height of grandstanding. Denis replied by calling Xiao’s questions “unduly caustic and self-serving”.

Xiao applied the coup de gras to his own credibility with this befuddling question: “My last question to the same minister: if he has nothing planned, whether he has a real handle at the provincial level, and instead is dumping this issue on cities to address it, what will he do if the cities have no plan or intention to address panhandling?”

Again, WFT? Even Denis had to say “I had some difficulty understanding this member’s question.”

While his questions are befuddling to read, to get the full impact of the cynicism behind them, you’d have to watch the video. At the end of the question, Xiao sat down with a self-serving, aren’t-I-a-naughty-boy smile on his face, like he’d done something really smart and clever.

This is the first we’ve heard from Xiao, and hopefully it will be the last. As the saying goes, better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubts.

A perfectly cromulent day in the Legislature.

My old reporter’s heart, which bleeds ink, feels a certain empathy for the poor sods who have to cover the Alberta Legislature on a daily basis. All that sound and fury, and hardly a story to report.

I found a few things that were amusing over the past couple of days, if you really stretch the definition of the word ‘amusing’.

For example, Lindsay Blackett, the minister of Culture and Community Spirit (surely the silliest name for a ministry ever) must have been feeling like a forgotten man lately, and felt compelled to do something about it. On Monday, a backbencher tossed him a couple of puffballs about the arts and culture industry to get him back in the game, to wit:

“Can the Minister of Culture and Community Spirit please tell me what he is doing to help this critically important sector during these tough economic times?”, followed up by Can the minister please tell me what he is doing to ensure that this sector remains healthy after the economy has recovered?”

That should have been enough to keep the guy happy, but no. In Tuesday’s QP, another Tory seat warmer asked these questions: “Can the minister offer that assurance and tell us specifically what he’s doing to support the arts?”, followed by  “Can the minister tell us how we’re comparing with other jurisdictions?” and finishing withCan the minister tell us anything about planning for the future in terms of budgeting?”

If you look at the first question from the two days, you’ll see that they are essentially the same question. The other questions are simply variations on the theme.  Let’s hope that keeps the nearly forgotten Minister Blackett happy for a couple of weeks.

Elsewhere, it was a typically non-productive day in the Legislature. Of note, however, was the debate on Bill 12, the supposedly historic, landmark, etc. Alberta Health Act. For most of Tuesday afternoon, members debated the merits of the bill, quite accurately described as a “Seinfeld bill” — a bill about nothing. Nothing or not, that didn’t stop opposition members from entering in a vigourous debate about the bill. The trouble was, they were debating themselves — not one single government member rose to debate the bill on Tuesday. The Scrap Metal Dealers act was important enough for 11 of them to rise on Monday, but on the Alberta Health Act, they remained almost universally silent. Maybe it really is a bill about nothing….

And finally, one amusing moment from Twitter.

The Globe and Mail’s Edmonton correspondent, Josh Wingrove, Twittered about Premier Ed Stelmach’s use of the word “ironical” in the legislature.  “Hey, ABPremierComms, please tell Stelmach that ironical isn’t a word” he Tweeted. Moments later, some wag in the premier’s communication office offered “Ironical is a perfectly cromulent word.”

Wow! An obscure reference from The Simpsons from someone in the premier’s communications staff, and used properly! Kudos to the writer. Too bad the premier’s communication people don’t display that kind of with-it wit a little more often. Might make Stelmach look almost human.