CANADA

Post-election realities

Alberta Tories predict difficult times

PEETER KOPVILLEM June 12 1989
CANADA

Post-election realities

Alberta Tories predict difficult times

PEETER KOPVILLEM June 12 1989

Post-election realities

CANADA

Alberta Tories predict difficult times

The event was designed as a proud homecoming for hockey’s champions. But even Calgary’s civic welcome for its Stanley Cup-winning Flames late last month showed signs of the political favoritism that has been appearing in Alberta since the March 20 provincial election. In the election, Alberta voters slightly diminished Premier Donald Getty’s stranglehold on the legislature, giving the Conservatives 59 instead of 61 of the 83 seats in their sixth consecutive majority—and rejected the premier in his Edmonton riding. Getty went on to win an overwhelming byelection victory in the rural riding of Stettler on May 9. But in Calgary, where five of the city’s 18 seats are now held by the opposition, only Tory MLAs were invited to the celebrations for the Flames. Officials in

Mayor Donald Hartman’s office said that the exclusion had been an oversight and added that letters of apology had been sent. But opposition MLAs claimed that Getty had exerted pressure on the mayor to exclude the other parties. Said Barry Pashak, NDP MLA for Calgary-Forest Lawn: “The Tories horned in. When the premier lays a heavy like that on Mayor Hartman, it is pretty hard for him to say no.”

Last week, as the Alberta legislature reconvened for its first full session since last July—it sat for just one day before the election call in February—the Getty government announced several initiatives that could take the sting out of the opposition’s criticism. Among highlights of its speech from the throne: a renewed pledge to hold Senate elections as part of a campaign to reform the federal upper house; an increase in day care subsidies; new measures to protect the environment; paving for more than half of Alberta’s 15,000-km secondary road system; nine-per-cent interest rates on farm loans; and mortgage shielding for home buyers. But the speech, delivered by Lt.-Gov. Helen Hunley, also introduced an element of caution about the economy that was missing in the Tories’ election campaign. Said Hunley: “The remaining months of the fiscal year 1989-1990 will be more difficult than first anticipated.”

Outside the legislature, Getty blamed high interest rates and the federal government’s April budget for making the economic outlook more uncertain. But opposition spokesmen said that the problems had been obvious during the campaign and Getty should have acknowledged it at that time. Said Opposition Leader Raymond Martin, whose New Democrats won 16 seats: “They didn’t tell the truth, just as the federal Conservatives didn’t in the last election.” Added Liberal Leader Laurence Decore, whose party won eight seats: “They promised not to increase taxes, not to increase the deficit and that there would be no reduction in programs. The premier has been given a mandate on that and I’m going to make sure he sticks to it.”

But some Conservatives have acknowledged privately that, despite Getty’s byelection victory and the Tories’ new mandate, there is widespread unhappiness over Getty’s leadership. Said one high-ranking party official in Edmonton: “His election in Stettler only delays the rebuilding—and perhaps makes it impossible.” Certainly, the Tories have seen their dominance of Alberta politics wane in the four years since Getty succeeded Peter Lougheed as premier in November, 1985. In the election held seven months after the change in leadership, the New Democrats increased their representation to 16 from two, while the Liberals, who previously held no seats, won four. Then, in March, the Liberals gained seats while the NDP retained their standing. And both opposition parties proved particularly strong in the province’s cities. In Edmonton, the Conservatives now hold just two of the city’s 17 ridings.

It was against that backdrop that the opposition again claimed to detect signs of political favoritism when the government announced

new plans for a meeting of the four western premiers later this month. The meeting was originally scheduled to be held in late May in Edson, 200 km west of Edmonton, in the West Yellowhead riding—held by the Tories until the NDP took the riding in March. But Getty moved it to Conservative-held Camrose, next to his own new base in Stettler. Commented the Calgary Herald, which supported the Tories in the election: “No matter that Edson’s business people worked hard to organize the promised conference. Edson failed to re-elect a Tory to the legislature, so Edson must pay.” At the same time, Getty made his gratitude to Stettler evident on May 27 when he announced that the town would be the site of the 1991 Alberta Summer Games.

But some Tories said that the appearance of favoritism makes it more difficult for the party to regain its support in urban areas, where 79

per cent of Alberta’s population lives. “Getty’s election compounds our problems,” complained one Alberta Tory who has had close ties to the premier. “The people there are going to expect rewards for giving the premier a seat— and I expect they will get the goodies. What kind of message does that send voters in the city?”

But the premier may deflect some of the criticism with his efforts to reform the Canadian Senate, effectively appointed by the Prime Minister, into an elected body with increased powers and equal representation from each province. That change would increase the influence of all the provinces but Ontario and Quebec. Getty proposes an election for a candidate for the Alberta Senate seat—one of the province’s she—that is now open. The plan runs counter to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s declaration that the submission of a single

candidate would be an “unacceptable” breach of the still unratified Meech Lake accord, which calls for provinces to submit a list of candidates for the federal government’s consideration.

Still, many Albertans seem to be most concerned with the mixed signals that Getty has been giving on his election pledge not to raise taxes. Since March, the premier has said that he intended to freeze only income taxes, leaving the door open to increases in other provincial levies. And provincial Treasurer Archibald (Dick) Johnston has been deliberately vague on the issue. Said Johnston: “Taxes may go up and taxes may go down.” Indeed, Albertans will have to wait until Johnston presents his budget this week to find out whether the treasurer intends to delve into their pocket books.

PEETER KOPVILLEM

JOHN HOWSE

DAVID QUIGLEY