CANADA

RUNNING SCARED

CANDIDATES FOR THE ALBERTA TORY LEADERSHIP ARE CAMPAIGNING AGAINST THEIR OWN RECORD

BRIAN BERGMAN November 30 1992
CANADA

RUNNING SCARED

CANDIDATES FOR THE ALBERTA TORY LEADERSHIP ARE CAMPAIGNING AGAINST THEIR OWN RECORD

BRIAN BERGMAN November 30 1992

RUNNING SCARED

CANADA

CANDIDATES FOR THE ALBERTA TORY LEADERSHIP ARE CAMPAIGNING AGAINST THEIR OWN RECORD

Organizers hoped that it would generate the excitement normally associated with a political leadership race. Campaign workers plastered the hall with colorful posters. A jazz band offered spirited renditions of Dark Town Strutters Ball and other old favorites. But despite those festive touches, the 6,400-seat Calgary Stampede Corral looked cavernous last week when only 1,200 people showed up for what Alberta Conservatives had presented as a showcase for the nine candidates seeking to succeed Premier Donald Getty. Worse still, many audience members left the event long before all the speakers had made their pitches. For some longtime Alberta Tories, the lacklustre fo-

rum—one of several across the province in advance of the Nov. 28 leadership vote— reinforced fears that, after 21 years in power, the party is facing an unprecedented crisis. “Many Albertans no longer share anything with this party,” lamented Toby Lawrence, a Tory supporter who runs a market research company in Calgary. “Maybe it needs a term or two in the wilderness.”

The gloomy mood shared by Lawrence and many of his fellow party members is one indication of how far the Alberta Conservative’s political fortunes have fallen since Peter Lougheed led the party to a series of overwhelming election victories in the 1970s and early 1980s. Since Getty replaced him in 1985,

public support for the Conservatives has dwindled. And with a provincial election expected next year, the Conservatives find themselves trailing the once almost-extinct Liberals in public opinion polls: a recent survey gave the Liberals 41 per cent of the decided vote, with the Conservatives at 36 per cent and the NDP at 19 per cent.

Also revealing is the fact that most of the nine leadership candidates—six of them members of Getty’s cabinet—are running against the record of their own government, which has been widely criticized for its handling of the province’s economy. “It is time to air things out in Alberta,” says Health Minister Nancy Betkowski who, along with Environment Minister Ralph Klein and Energy Minister Rick Orman, is considered a front-runner in the race. “If we don’t, Albertans will do their own airing out of us in the next election.”

As with most other governing parties across Canada, the challenges facing Alberta’s Tories are rooted in a restless electorate and a slug1 gish economy. In sharp contrast to the boom times dur00 ing most of Lougheed’s 14year tenure as premier, Getty’s government has grappled with the fallout from collapsing oil, gas and grain prices. In a province that once acted as an economic magnet, drawing jobseekers from across the country, the number of Albertans receiving welfare jumped by 21 per cent in the past year. During Getty’s term, the province’s accumulated debt grew from near zero to almost $15 billion. His government has also lost over $ 1 billion because of bad investments and it faces complaints of widespread patronage—including the appointment of Getty’s barber as the $60,000-a-year chairman of the Alberta Gaming Commission.

The controversies have taken a serious toll. Party membership has dropped from over 100,000 a decade ago to just 11,500 as of September. Eager to recruit new members, the party’s executive abandoned the traditional method of selecting a leader in which party members from each constituency meet to elect delegates to a leadership convention. Following the example of several other political parties across Canada—including the Parti Québécois and Ontario’s Conservatives—the Alberta Tories will allow all paid-up party members to cast leadership ballots at polling booths across the province.

If no candidate wins more than 50 per cent of the vote on Nov. 28, the top three candidates will compete in a run-off election on Dec. 5.

The $5 party memberships will remain on sale throughout both phases of the campaign. Still, party insiders acknowledged that the total membership is unlikely to top 40,000 by the time the first ballot is cast. Critics of the process complain that it allows supporters of rival parties to purchase memberships in an attempt to influence the vote. But party president Edward Carruthers said that he was willing to take that chance. Declared Carruthers: “The risk of people buying a membership for the wrong reasons is nowhere near as great as the risk of failing to renew the party.” The need for renewal is a common theme among the leadership candidates. Indeed, much of the campaign rhetoric has focused on the perceived need for drastic measures to put the province’s financial house in order. Klein says that he would introduce legislation to outlaw budgetary shortfalls—such as the $2.3 billion deficit that the Getty government is projecting for the current fiscal year. Orman, for his part, says that he will balance the books within three years, or resign as premier.

Some of the candidates have even espoused a once unthinkable measure—liquidation of the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund. Established in 1976, the fund received a fixed percentage of the province’s annual oil and gas revenues and was intended to act as a cushion for the day those resources run out. Orman says that he would use the fund’s $12 billion to pay off the province’s debt. Another candidate, Labor Minister Elaine McCoy, would take a slightly more modest $10 billion in a one-shot effort to reduce the debt, and drain off a further $71 million annually. Both schemes drew a sharp rebuke from Klein, who says that Albertans still consider the fund a sacred trust. Declared Klein: “I don’t think they want to see their kids’ savings account liquidated to pay the mortgage we have created.”

Klein, a three-term Calgary mayor before running for the Tories in the 1989 provincial election, is by far the most colorful candidate in the race. A former radio and TV reporter who acknowledges a fondness for alcohol and smoking, Klein caused a stir in the campaign when he told a convention of Alberta restaurateurs that, as premier, he would offer them volume discounts on pin-chases of liquor from the government. That promise drew criticism from Culture Minister Doug Main, a former TV anchorman who is an evangelical Christian who has given up drinking and smoking. The last thing Alberta needs, Main replied, was a “gladhanding, smoking, drinking premier.” According to University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins, the biggest challenge facing the next Tory leader is to make a clean break with the party’s recent past. But the fact that all of the leading candidates are sitting cabinet ministers may make that difficult. Says Gibbins : “The problem is the weight of incumbency after two decades in power.” Alberta’s new Tory leader will have to convince voters of an ability to cast that weight aside.

BRIAN BERGMAN

JOHN HOWSE