DONALD GETTY’S LEADERSHIP IS COMING UNDER INCREASING CRITICISM FROM FELLOW TORIES
ROCKY MOUNTAIN LOW
DONALD GETTY’S LEADERSHIP IS COMING UNDER INCREASING CRITICISM FROM FELLOW TORIES
As a star quarterback with the Edmonton Eskimos in the 1950s, the lanky, broad-shouldered Donald Getty was famous for his strong signal-calling abilities and steely nerves. As Getty once explained, “If you want to see a football team come apart fast, you just have to have a quarterback who doesn’t know what he is doing.” Now, almost seven years after becoming Alberta’s 11th premier, Getty faces a growing chorus of critics within his own Conservative party. His detractors charge that the leadership skills that the 58-year-old Getty used to demonstrate on the playing field have largely eluded him as premier. As a result, there are widespread fears within the party that the once unbeatable Tories could lose the next provincial election. “Everyone likes Mr. Getty, but the question is, ‘Can we win with him?’ ” says Murray Buchanan, president of the central Alberta Conservative riding association of Three Hills. “People are concerned right across the province.”
In fact, Maclean’s has learned that some Alberta businessmen who are longtime Tory supporters have privately discussed the possibility of creating a retirement fund to entice the embattled premier to step aside. The idea, at this stage, appears to be hypothetical, and a spokesman for the premier says that Getty has no knowledge of it. But the premier’s political judgments continue to stir controversy. Many provincial Tories are still smarting over a widely publicized January speech in which Getty attacked official bilingualism and state-supported multiculturalism. Internal dissent has been further fuelled by Getty’s continuing refusal to revoke his appointment last month of Vermilion MLA Steven West, 48, as Alberta’s solicitor general. Since then, Albertans have been inundated with published allegations that West physically abused his former wife—
which he denied last year—verbally assaulted patrons and managers of at least two Edmonton bars and destroyed property in a neighbor’s backyard. Last Friday, after remaining silent about the allegations for weeks, West read a prepared statement to a hushed Alberta legislature. “There have been many stories and allegations about me,” said West. “Suffice to
say that some of the stories, but not all, are surrounded to some degree by alcohol.” West then promised to refrain from using alcohol as long as he is in cabinet.
While none of the allegations resulted in criminal charges against West, they have stoked the disenchantment felt by some longtime Tories as they prepare for the party’s
annual convention in Calgary on March 27 to 29. “The party is adrift,” says David King, a former education minister under Getty who was defeated in the 1986 provincial election. King added that he believes Getty should demand West’s resignation: “There is a sense that there is no leadership at the party’s core.”
West, a veterinarian, is well-known in Tory circles as an outspoken law-and-order advocate. He gained his reputation, in part, by confronting suspected drug dealers in the bars and on the streets of Vermilion, a farming community of 3,500 located 190 km east of Edmonton. But West’s notoriety soared after Getty promoted him on Feb. 24 from recreation and parks minister to solicitor general, a post in which he will oversee police services, the Alberta Liquor Control Board and government efforts to curb drunken driving and family violence. Within days of that appointment, his former wife, Nancy, told reporters that West
had physically abused her during their five-year marriage, which ended in divorce in 1970. But court records show that the divorce was granted on the grounds of West’s adultery.
As the allegations about West mounted, Getty shrugged off the controversy, saying that he was interested more in West’s future performance than in his past. Declared Getty: “I think he has the makings of the best solicitor general we have ever had.” But those responses did little to appease opposition politicians, representatives of women’s groups and many grassroots members of Getty’s own party, who contend that West is an inappropriate candidate to serve as solicitor general. Said Patti Papirnik, president of the Edmonton/
Norwood Conservative riding association: “I think he should resign.”
Disgruntled Tories say that Getty’s handling of the West controversy is only the latest example of why the former quarterback should consider retiring. Alex Rose, president of the Tory constituency association in the central Alberta riding of Lacombe, traces much of the resentment to the 1989 provincial election campaign, during which Getty led his party to a slightly reduced majority but lost his own seat in Edmonton. Instead of retiring, as many expected, he accepted the resignation of Tory MLA Brian Downey and then won a byelection in Downey’s rural riding of Stettler. Getty later rewarded Downey by appointing him chairman of the Alberta Grain Commission, a position that pays between $70,000 and $85,000 annually. “The Stettler business did not go down well with a lot of people,” says Rose. “It didn’t strike them as fair or proper.”
Getty also ran afoul of many in his own party by supporting the ill-fated Meech Lake accord,
which would have recognized Quebec as a distinct society. His speech in January, in which he insisted that all provinces must be treated as equals in any future constitutional deal, appeared to be more in tune with public opinion in the province: in an Angus Reid poll a week after the speech, 36 per cent of the respondents said that they would support the Conservatives, up from 29 per cent in December. But 68 per cent of those polled said that they still disapproved of Getty’s performance as leader—a rating that has held virtually constant for over two years.
Getty suffers—perhaps unfairly—by comparison to his predecessor, Peter Lougheed, a strong-willed workaholic who governed the province for 14 years. “Getty does not work hard and is really not interested in policy,” a senior provincial Tory official, who declined to be identified, told Maclean ’s last week. Added
Party insiders say that the laid-back, genial
Lacombe’s Rose: “Lougheed was the best example of a leader who had a very, very strong political and emotional connection to his party. Getty doesn’t have that.”
However, Getty loyalists point out that the Tories still enjoy a commanding majority—they hold 59 of the 83 seats in the legislature—and that Getty has until 1994 to call an election. Deputy premier James Horsman, who has served as a cabinet minister under both Lougheed and Getty, says that the party remains united behind its current leader. As for the widespread displeasure with Getty expressed in polls, Horsman adds: “The key public opinion poll comes when people cast their vote. If we had to govern by the polls, we would be flounder-
ing all over the map.”
Several senior party officials acknowledged last week that talk of a backroom deal to offer Getty a financial incentive to leave politics is making the rounds in Calgary. “There is a wish, not a will,” said one highly placed Tory official, who added that some party members would clearly welcome such an initiative. Getty’s communications co-ordinator, Peter Tadman, told Maclean’s that the premier does not comment on unattributed reports. But another senior Tory says that he doubts the premier would accept such an offer in any case. Added the official: “He is an honorable guy. Besides, political attitudes have changed and people would never accept this.” Still, the mere fact that the idea is being discussed is evidence that some members of Getty’s Tory team have lost faith in their quarterback’s ability to lead them to electoral victory.
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