NATIONAL

DIAMOND JIM’S BEST-LAID PLANS

Will King Ralph’s heir apparent escape the finance minister curse?

NANCY MACDONALD December 4 2006
NATIONAL

DIAMOND JIM’S BEST-LAID PLANS

Will King Ralph’s heir apparent escape the finance minister curse?

NANCY MACDONALD December 4 2006

DIAMOND JIM’S BEST-LAID PLANS

NATIONAL

Will King Ralph’s heir apparent escape the finance minister curse?

NANCY MACDONALD

At the only official televised debate in the race to replace Ralph Klein as leader of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives Jim Dinning kept repeating one word over and over again. That word was “plan.” How to clear the backlog in school construction? “With a five-year plan.” How to manage Alberta’s surplus? “By building a plan.” (What kind? “The right plan.”) Why vote for Jim Dinning? Because he has a “fiscal plan,” a “clear plan.” A “careful, conservative plan.”

There were seven other candidates onstage at the University of Calgary’s MacEwan Hall, but Dinning— the former treasurer, whose deep spending cuts helped eliminate provincial deficits a decade ago—wasn’t referring to any of them with his incessant talk of planning. Instead, he was using a kind of thinly veiled code to critique his old boss Ralph Klein, who admitted in August that he had governed through the greatest boom in the province’s history with “no plan.” With a little over a week remaining before the Alberta premiership was to change hands, Dinning, 54, was trying to assure Alberta Conservatives that, although he’s the clear front-runner, he’s no amiable muddler in the Klein mould. There will be no more ad hoc budgeting or governance by whim. He will sail the province rudder-down, map, compass and GPS firmly in hand. Jim Dinning has a plan. He’s always had a plan.

The day after Dinning announced he wouldn’t stand for the 1997 provincial election, Calgary Herald political columnist Don Martin wrote that Alberta’s next premier was retiring from politics. Dinning has been gearing up for the job his entire life. He left Alberta once, to attend Queen’s University, where he picked up a business degree and a graduate degree in public administration, before coming home to work for the Peter Lougheed government. He was the executive assistant to the provincial treasurer at 26 and a deputy minister by 31. He’d held three different cabinet posts by the time he was 40. When he left government in 1997, few doubted he would later replace Klein. They started calling him “Diamond Jim.”

He has it in him to be a smooth operator. Lean, with smiling eyes and matching creases that run deep into his cheeks, he’s in a tiny class of Calgarians who look sexy in a cowboy hat during Stampede. The rest of the year, he could use a cowboy hat—to spice himself up. To critics, he is too cerebral, too corporate, more a manager than a leader. Despite a wealth of experience and legions of endorsements—from a Who’s Who of Albertans, including Lougheed and 35 MLAs—some fear another Paul Martin is waiting in the wings: a whiz at managing economies, adept at building consensus in the boardroom and behind closed doors, but hapless on the front line.

That’s one of the most striking trends in Canadian politics over the past couple of decades: the failure of former finance ministers to live up to expectations once they become leaders. Examples include Martin, his onetime mentor, John Turner, men like Stockwell Day in Alberta, Ernie Eves in Ontario and Bernard Landry in Quebec. Each seemed the golden boy of his party. Each led his party on a short ride to the political wilderness.

Is the finance minister curse pure coincidence? Some say not. To Eddie Goldenberg, Jean Chretien’s right-hand man and 10-year senior policy adviser, finance is a bad training ground for leadership. Whereas someone groomed in opposition learns to fight on his feet, being a finance minister doesn’t require that kind of pressure-cooker decision-making on a daily basis. A finance minister “has the time to focus throughout the year on the next budget without the pressure or distraction of too many daily decisions,” Goldenberg wrote in The Way It Works, his memoir of the Chrétien era. “He has the luxury of time to weigh options, examine alternatives, look at details and engage in policy seminars.”

In an interview, Dinning seemed to expect the question of what sets him apart from the other, disappointing, finance ministers. His answer wasn’t unexpected, either. “For one thing, I’ve laid out a plan. I’ve laid out a plan that’s got a defined number of areas and issues that I’m going to address.”

SOME FEAR DINNING IS ANOTHER MARTIN IN THE MAKING: A WHIZ WITH ECONOMIES, BUT HAPLESS ON THE FRONT LINES

Dinning hasn’t always been the golden boy. He backed losing candidate Nancy Betkowski in Alberta’s bitterly contested Conservative leadership race in 1992. According to Don Martin, Dinning’s name was scrawled prominently on Klein’s cabinet lineup chart after he became leader, under the fatal subject heading “Toast.” But when Klein refused to grant Betkowski’s demands, including the treasury post, Dinning met Klein to plead for it. Klein initially responded with a snort. He came around. Three hours later he offered Dinning the job. It would earn Dinning a national reputation as a deficit slayer. By 1995, two years ahead of schedule, the deficit was gone; Dinning had delivered the first balanced budget in 12 years. In 1997 he decamped, heroic, for the private sector.

But this is no Dinning coronation; it’s Alberta, after all. Although Dinning leads in the polls, the provincial Tories are running the most wide-open leadership selection system in the country. Memberships can be bought on behalf of putative supporters and given away free. (Even unions have snapped up thousands.) There are no spending limits, candidates don’t have to disclose where donations come from, or how much is in the pot. “There is no other jurisdiction in Canada, no other party in Canada, that uses rules like this,” says David Stewart, head of the political science department at the University of Calgary, who expects the electorate to change right up until the day of the vote.

Ted Morton, the Wyoming-raised candidate of the hard-right wing of the party, is among the contenders. Morton is an advocate of Senate reform, and was elected a senator-in-waiting in 1998. He was also a signatory, with Stephen Harper, of the infamous “firewall” letter in 2001, which proposed getting the federal government out of policing, provincial income tax collection and other areas in Alberta. Getting out the vote will not be a problem for Morton, whose campaign more effectively taps into populist fervour

RUNNING ALBERTA IS NO EASY TASK, WHAT WITH LABOUR SHORTAGES AND SOARING COSTS

than any other candidate’s. Others with a realistic chance to win include former transport minister Lyle Oberg, a family doctor with a bad habit of putting his foot in his mouth, and Ed Stelmach, a charisma-free veteran of the Klein cabinet who may appeal as a consensus second choice.

If Dinning doesn’t pull in more than 50 per cent of the vote on Nov. 25, these rivals could be among the top three names that will appear on a second ballot on Dec. 2. That extra week would give time for an anyonebut-Dinning movement to coalesce around one of his opponents, and for membership sales to boost that candidate’s chance of taking Dinning out.

The numbers required to win the leadership are small. Klein won by capturing a mere 46,000 votes in 1992. Yet the stakes are high. Alberta is Canada’s Shangri-La, our very own economic miracle. According to TD Economics, the province’s GDP is growing at more than triple the national average and retail sales are up a staggering 17 per cent so far this year. The province’s per capita GDP is now nearly 25 per cent above the national average, and the $5.4billion projected budget surplus dwarfs that of any other province. With the highest employment rate on the continent, the province has lured the youngest adult population in the country. And the provincial Tories have friendly counterparts in Ottawa, led by Harper, a former Calgarian.

That said, running Alberta is no easy task these days. Managing the province’s surreal growth—and the infrastructure backlog, labour shortages and soaring costs that have accompanied it—presents its own set of challenges. Dinning could win, and still do poorly in office. Nevertheless, if anyone can break the finance minister curse, he can. At least that’s the plan.