NATIONAL

Wanting a piece of the action

The race to lead Alberta raises out-of-province interest—and cash

NANCY MACDONALD,KEN MACQUEEN October 9 2006
NATIONAL

Wanting a piece of the action

The race to lead Alberta raises out-of-province interest—and cash

NANCY MACDONALD,KEN MACQUEEN October 9 2006

Wanting a piece of the action

The race to lead Alberta raises out-of-province interest—and cash

NATIONAL

NANCY MACDONALD

KEN MACQUEEN

Tim Crowhurst, a West Coast consultant and Conservative strategist, is no stranger to political fundraisers in Vancouver. Recently, however, the politician being feted at the city’s swank Gotham Steakhouse was none other than Jim Dinning, the candidate for the leadership of the Conservative party—of Alberta. The packed event, Crowhurst says, attracted a lot of British Columbians with Alberta economic interests—and some alarm back in Alberta that B.C. donors were buying the affection of a potential premier.

Over the course of his campaign, Dinning, the acknowledged front-runner, has twice hosted $250-a-ticket dinners in Vancouver, and fundraising events in Winnipeg and Toronto. Ted Morton, another candidate in the race to replace Ralph Klein, has plans for a $l,500-per-table fundraiser in Vancouver later this month. What’s happening in Alberta—Canada’s financial Shangri-La— has captured the interest and imagination of a lot of people, says Ken Boessenkool, a policy chair for the Dinning campaign and a vice-president with Hill & Knowlton Canada. “It’s no surprise to me that people outside the province are interested.”

And no surprise that outsiders would want a piece of the action. The scope of Alberta’s wealth has made it a national player, politically and economically. “Welcome to the New Centre of the Universe,” crowed a recent cover of Alberta Venture, a glossy business magazine, with only slight exaggeration. With Alberta’s huge infrastructure backlog, a desperate labour shortage, and resource revenues that topped $14 billion last year, opportunities abound in almost every sector. “Alberta is not an island,” says the Canada West Foundation, a Calgary-based think tank. Its bullish new report, Seizing Today and Tomorrow, calls for an investment strategy that puts Alberta first, but takes national interests into account. “For Canadians outside Alberta, it means that Alberta’s opportunities should be seen as truly national assets, albeit assets owned and managed by Albertans.”

Morton, one of nine candidates vying for the leadership, says Dinning, his chief rival, is looking beyond Alberta’s borders for all the wrong reasons. “Dinning’s meeting was with corporations with vested interests in Alberta,” he says. “That troubles me.” Morton, an arch-conservative, says his motivations are practical and ideological. Alberta is at a crossroads, he says. One of his campaign themes is the shifting of economic power from the East to the West. Canada’s future prosperity depends on the new economies of

HIS CHIEF RIVAL SAYS DINNING IS LOOKING BEYOND ALBERTA FOR ALL THE WRONG REASONS

British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan. He says his planned meeting in Vancouver is “with people who have a shared vision of Alberta and B.C. as cornerstones of the new economy, who are looking for a different approach for equalizations and transfers.” That resonates in B.C., according to Victoria’s Byng Giraud, a senior consultant with Earnscliffe Strategy Group Inc., federal Conservative national counsellor, and Morton supporter. “Morton will be a strong ally for British Columbians who want more influence for the West in Ottawa, and less Ottawa influence in Western affairs,” reads a flyer circulated by Giraud. “Perhaps more so than in Alberta,” he says, “British Columbians have a western look, that includes the Pacific Rim. Sometimes what happens on the other

side of the Rocky Mountains, we don’t always pay attention to.” But there’s also a long history of co-operation between the two provinces, recently solidified with a sweeping interprovincial trade agreement. “There’s a lot of people on that Vancouver to Calgary flight every day,” Giraud says.

Alberta’s opposition parties condemn the largely unregulated nature of the Conservative leadership race. There are no rules requiring candidates to reveal the sources and amounts of donations, unlike in B.C. and Ontario (provincial elections in Alberta, by contrast, do prohibit out-of-province donations). In the Tory leadership campaign, “moral suasion” is the only mechanism for regulating fundraising and spending, concedes Conservative party president Doug Graham.

To professor Linda Trimble, chair of political science at the University of Alberta, the question of where candidates travel for donations is less worrisome than the “almost total lack of financial regulation in the leadership

race. Raise money wherever, spend it however; spend as much as you like,” she says. “I guess the question is, what difference does it make if it’s Alberta companies that are buying influence or B.C. companies buying influence? Fundamentally, the problem is not that the money is coming from outside Alberta, but that money buys influence. And there’s no doubt that with this kind of unregulated, untransparent process, there’s great potential for money to buy influence.”

She says the stakes are particularly high because this is a party with a long hold on power. The Conservatives aren’t just choosing a leader, “they’re choosing a premier for the foreseeable future.” And, for some voters, that’s a decision that should be made— and financed—by Albertans. M