When Premier Peter Lougheed first announced that he would step down as leader of the Alberta Conservative party, he set in motion a contest to succeed him that was expected to be a formality leading to the coronation of former energy minister Donald Getty. Instead, the 11-week race turned into a hard-fought, divisive contest that ultimately could shake loose the Tories’ iron grip on the province.
When 1,911 delegates choose a new Conservative leader this weekend, Getty is expected to win out over his two rivals, Municipal Affairs Minister Julian Koziak and Calgary lawyer Ronald Ghitter. But the new leader may find himself at the head of a disillusioned party. Declared one longtime Conservative who requested anonymity: “We have denigrated the respect of the electorate for politics in Alberta. It has not been a positive experience.”
The events at Edmonton’s cavernous Convention Centre over the Thanksgiving weekend are likely to be dramatic. Although unofficial delegate counts indicated that Getty had about 750 voters committed to him—with 400 supporting Koziak and 250 for Ghitter—956 delegate votes are needed for victory. Getty’s opponents, who claimed to detect softness in the front-runner’s support, said that an upset victory for Koziak or Ghitter was possible if supporters of the third-place candidate rallied behind the runner-up after the first ballot. Added John Szumlas,Koziak’s executive assist-
ant: “While Getty’s people are repairing fences, we’ve been building roads.” Despite that, organizers for Getty were confident of victory—to the point of running a newspaper advertisement informing Albertans that the former Edmonton Eskimo quarterback is ready to listen to their needs as leader and join them in building “a brighter future.” Getty remained the solid favorite of the party’s old guard, with the support of
more than 40 of the Conservative MLAs who hold 75 of the legislature’s 79 seats (the New Democratic Party holds two seats, as does the right-wing Representative Party).
Still, the sometimes bitter campaign almost certainly cut into the front-runner’s support. Getty, who earned his political colors battling Ottawa’s energy
policies in the 1970s—he _
left politics in 1979 to run an Edmonton oil company —tried to wage a lowkey campaign based on “family, God, country and province.” Koziak, who built his early support on his appeal to the province’s “Ukrainian connection,” is also the strongest defender of the Lougheed legacy. Ghitter, a former MLA known for his trenchant criticism of the government, warned delegates against the dangers of
the status quo. “The moment the party adopts the approach of staying put,” declared Ghitter, “the party is in trouble.”
While the candidates traded rhetoric, their supporters claimed that their rivals were engaging in unfair campaign practices. Organizers for Koziak and Ghitter accused Getty supporters of stuffing ballot boxes at delegate selection meetings and of giving away $5 party memberships in return for votes. In the Calgary McCall riding Conservative officials asked the police to investigate allegations that some of the Getty supporters bused to delegate meetings were not Canadian citizens and as a result were not eligible to vote in the meeting, which resulted in a 20-delegate sweep for Getty.
In more than half a dozen other ridings, party unity was shaken when MLAs supporting Getty opposed the preference of their riding executives, leading some officials to resign angrily. Said Benjamin Smashnuk, who ran as an uncommitted delegate in the northwestern riding of Grande Prairie and lost to a Getty slate: “When a candidate goes to the hostels, welfare homes and houses of prostitution with a bus and comes down with enough people to dominate a meeting, it’s a sad day for the party. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction.”
The Conservative divisions delighted members of the opposition New Democrats and Alberta’s tiny Liberal party. Spokesmen for both parties say that after 14 years in power, Alberta’s Conservatives are running out of energy. The next provincial election could take place as early as November, if Getty emerges as the new Tory leader and premier and decides to call a snap election to win a seat for himself and capitalize on the political momentum generated by the hard-fought leadership race. But before calling a general election the new . leader will likely first try to repair the party’s divisions and offset the unfavorable impact that the campaign may have had on Alberta’s electorate. As University of Calgary political scientist Roger Gibbins noted, “The next premier will no longer be a white knight on a charger saving Alberta from Ottawa but a regular premier, warts and all.”
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