It’s lonely in the city

Ed Stelmach discovers being Alberta’s premier isn’t as easy as it looks

NICHOLAS KÖHLER March 19 2007

It’s lonely in the city

Ed Stelmach discovers being Alberta’s premier isn’t as easy as it looks

NICHOLAS KÖHLER March 19 2007

It’s lonely in the city

Ed Stelmach discovers being Alberta’s premier isn’t as easy as it looks

BY NICHOLAS KÖHLER • At a recent Edmonton breakfast meeting with supporters, Ed Stelmach, premier of Alberta, made a startling admission: he’d gone ahead and sold his cows—a herd of Angus he’d raised through his 15 years in the provincial legislature and kept even during those gruelling months late last year when he campaigned for the leadership of the provincial Progressive Conservatives. No one could quite believe, last December, that Stelmach, never a favourite, had moved up the middle of the political field to replace the larger-than-life Ralph Klein as premier. Now, evidently, even Stelmach himself would have to come to terms with it. And so he sold his cows.

Three months into his premiership, indications are rife that Stelmach—who grew up on the same farm his Ukrainian grandparents homesteaded, and who did not speak English until he started grade school—never seriously believed he’d have to give up his cattle. Even his organizers were somewhat taken aback by his victory. Indeed, it was not until late January, when the premier’s office plucked two long-time political columnists— Paul Stanway, of the Edmonton Sun, and Tom Olsen, of the Calgary Herald—from the legislature’s press gallery, that he actually had a communications team. Would that they’d arrived earlier.

It is not just that Stelmach won as something of an unknown—a riddle wrapped in a hay bale stored deep in a damp barn—despite holding several ministerial portfolios under Klein. His successful leadership bid reflected a division in the party, cleaving a path between two Alberta powerhouses—Jim Dinning, the flashy favourite of Alberta’s business crowd, and Ted Morton, a one-time University of Calgary professor-turned-right-wing populist. That internecine split moved Liberal leader Kevin Taft to quip: “Ed is a bit like a cowboy sitting on a horse with two heads. We don’t know where that horse is going to go.”

It’s months later and Albertans still don’t know where that horse is headed. So a lot is riding on what’s said this week in Stelmach’s first Throne Speech (his first budget is next month). Even if Albertans get a blueprint worthy of the province’s big blue skies, the premier still must make good on it. And Stelmach has a lot of work to do, given he’s been

taking heat, particularly in Calgary, for being gaffe-prone, for selling face time to the highest bidder, honouring loyalty above good sense, and answering necessity with delay.

His missteps started early and began with his cabinet selections. Here the premier, whose rural northern roots appealed to a PC membership tired of dominant Calgary, chose to stick with his country backers. Of 19 ministers, only three are from Calgary, where the PCs hold 20 seats; one is from Edmonton, a Liberal stronghold; two are women; none are

back in the 1920s,” says Mount Royal College political scientist Keith Brownsey.

The team also lacks experience, as evident in Stelmach’s next mistake—an invitation sent to members of Calgary’s business community offering exclusive access to the premier for donors contributing a minimum of $5,000. Stelmach backed off the plan after the stink hit the papers, explaining he’d not been paying enough attention to fundraising efforts. But, as Duane Bratt, also of Mount Royal College, argues, “It shouldn’t be up to him to stop it—there’s got to be somebody in his team to say, ‘Flag on the play here, boys, this is not good optics.’ And he doesn’t have that.”

Last month, too, Stelmach learned via a journalist of an al-Qaeda offshoot’s threat to Alberta’s oil and gas industry. That terrorists were targeting his province as an energy supplier to the U.S. was, Stelmach told the reporter, news to him—even if oil company executives had been notified days earlier. Should he have been alerted? “No, I have great confidence in the system,” Stelmach later told a press conference.

But his biggest problem is managing a province on the verge of being crippled by its own success. Last month, Linance Minister Lyle Oberg unveiled a provincial surplus of $7 billion, Alberta’s second-highest ever (behind only last year’s, at $8.7 billion). That boon was largely due to tax dollars siphoned from energy firms like Calgary-based EnCana, which posted a $6.5-billion profit in February, the best full-year performance in Canada’s history. Nor must Alberta service any debt with all that dough.

But what to do with Alberta’s money—particularly as the province revs so hard it risks stripping its gears? Shortages in housing and labour, soaring costs and increasingly insufficient government services all beg lor solutions after, as even Klein admitted in the sunset of his office, years of government winging it without a plan. Leaving aside Fort McMurray—a municipal pituitary case thanks to the nearby oil sands and last week a recipient, finally, of $396 million in provincial money— Calgary needs housing, hospitals, dozens ol schools, roads and hockey rinks, nurses and doctors and a second university. Responding to such demands, Stelmach signalled his own leanings, perhaps, by signing on to a $930million public-private partnership to build a portion of road in Calgary’s northeast. The province will pay a consortium to lease the road—a liability critics say is foolish for a province awash in cash. Observers believe many more P3 deals are to come.

Many point to such plans and Stelmach’s Calgary-lite cabinet as proof of a premier out of touch with the city. Could it be otherwise?

As one city hall type recently put it, Stelmach lives in a town with a population equivalent to the number of migrants who move to Calgary in a typical three-day stretch. But if Stelmach’s leadership is due in part to what David Taras of the University of Calgary calls “a rebellion against the cities,” he “can only survive if he can actually deliver to the cities— he has to do this jiu-jitsu flip.”

The Tory government’s current position on the South Calgary Hospital doesn’t help. Slated to begin construction this year, its

projected cost is now $900 million—with a funding gap of $350 million due to everincreasing construction costs (the province committed $550 million two years ago, then enough to cover the whole bill). Oberg, the finance minister, last month wouldn’t commit to bridging the gap, citing escalating costs across Alberta: “We can’t simply do a one-off and say that this project is more important.” Meanwhile, Calgary-area women have suffered miscarriages in hospital waiting rooms, while others deliver babies in Montana and Toronto due to overstretched hospitals.

All this is difficult to reconcile with overflowing public coffers. Add to that the growing environmental consciousness among Albertans, and Stelmach must also show that he can be green—“he’s either going to get on that bandwagon or get run over by it,” says Taras—and that he’s not too focused on oil development, which Albertans increasingly want to see slowed. Stelmach should be worried: his rural bent won’t play in the cities, where two-thirds of Albertans live. The PCs have already lost Edmonton, where 12 of 18 seats belong to Liberals. “Calgary will be the battlefield of the next election,” says Bratt. Already, Calgary Conservatives, angry that Dinning lost and unsure of Stelmach, aren’t delivering cash to the party as they once did.

And yet Stelmach, who as a child taught himself to write with both hands while mending from a playground accident that broke his legs, remains likeable—the neighbour you’d want to have hold a set of your keys. And he has made progress. Sources with the Calgary mayor’s office say they’ve met more with his ministers in past months than they ever did with Klein’s people in 14 years. Stelmach, a smart, methodical man, is eager to learn. And he has sold his cows—the rural Alberta equivalent to Cortez burning his ships in Mexico. The loss of his herd, he told that breakfast crowd in Edmonton, saddened him. Some well-meaning person dispatched a photograph of a cow to keep him company. Perhaps someone should send Stelmach a photograph of Calgary—before he loses that too. M