Clash of the conservative titans

A showdown seems to be shaping up between a Tory heavyweight and the Wildrose party leader

Clash of the conservative titans

Andrew Vaughan/CP; Ted Rhodes/Calgary Herald;

As a University of Calgary political scientist, Ted Morton was famous for criticizing the role of the courts in post-Charter Canadian politics. Politics, he argued, belong to the sovereign people, and should not be confined to some remote, sterile bullring for litigators. Democracy in action may be noisy and sluggish, but it is the teacher and nurse of reason.

Yet the devil, as always, is in the details; and the former theoretician, now Progressive Conservative finance minister of Alberta, is in a tight fix as the province prepares for a probable 2012 election. The PCs are barely keeping pace in the polls with the surging Wildrose Alliance; according to an Environics survey released in December, the Alliance is actually ahead (37 per cent to 33 per cent) outside Calgary and Edmonton. Morton has been discussing the possibility of seeking a head-to-head showdown with Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, who is already nominated in Okotoks-High River. It would be an audacious move, but the risks are daunting.

The province had new electoral boundaries drawn up last summer, and the commission reined in slack limits on the range of population differences between ridings. For 2012, all votes will be created a little more equal than before in Alberta, where the countryside, much like the slower-growing provinces on the federal scene, has tended to be chronically overrepresented. Unfortunately for Morton, the commissioners left his scenic Foothills-Rocky View riding looking like a slab of peanut brittle shattered with a hammer, with large chunks handed to the neighbours. Morton has said he prefers to hold onto the nucleus of his old riding, the County of Rocky View on Calgary’s western fringe. The county has been joined with the northern edge of Calgary and its eastern suburbs to form a new riding, so even if Morton were to “stay,” he would have handshaking and chicken-dinnering to catch up on in the eastern half while still shouldering ministerial responsibilities.

Last month, however, the minister set tongues wagging by broaching the possibility of switching south of Calgary and entering into single combat against Smith. The PC incumbent there is George Groeneveld, a farmer and former wheat pool official who was an early backer of Premier Ed Stelmach’s leadership campaign. Groeneveld, 70, served as agriculture minister but was quietly dropped from cabinet a year ago. In March, his constituency board wrote an angry letter to Stelmach warning him that the PC party is “nearing the precipice of moral insolvency,” and influential PC backers have been defecting to the Wildrose cause.

Groeneveld has not confirmed plans to quit politics, but Morton, who refused comment for this article, told the Calgary Herald on Dec. 22 that “I still have lots of friends [in Groeneveld’s riding] and they’re worried that they’re going to lose. They think only two people can beat Danielle—George and me—and they think George is not going to run.” A Morton-Smith struggle might seem strange, given that both have been major figures on Calgary’s conservative intellectual scene for most of two decades. When Morton first won a legislature seat in November 2004, Smith was at the hotel in Calgary with his other supporters, and she took out a PC membership in 2006 specifically to support his run for the party leadership.

But now Smith is at the head of an enemy host, and it is beginning to look as though Morton may have to fend her off without having the all-important 2012-13 budget balanced. His personal popularity—he won 247,126 votes in Alberta’s 1998 Senate election—is not what it was, especially in the south, as talk of “moral insolvency” suggests. In 2009, as resource development minister, he introduced sweeping legislation to prevent environmentalists and other activists from using the courts to block major industrial projects. He has essentially made the Crown a giant central zoning agency for the whole province: his laws allow cabinet to identify “project areas” for infrastructure developments, freeze land titles within those areas, and force sale talks to proceed on a statutory timeline, with streamlined expropriation powers hovering over the negotiating table.

The result has been a clash of conservatisms. Morton admitted in 2009 that his plans gave cabinet “a lot of administrative discretion” but said “we want political accountability, not judge-made law” when it comes to land use. Meanwhile, farmers and cattlemen grumble about Soviet-style “five-year plans” and ready their chequebooks for Smith. On Jan. 13, the Wildrose leader, currently shopping for a pad in the Okotoks-High River riding, announced that if elected premier she would immediately repeal Morton’s “draconian” planning bills. Whether or not she and Morton end up as direct opponents, a bitter personal duel seems certain.

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