The prairie putsch to replace Ed Stelmach

Best known as the voice of the ’Calgary School,’ Ted Morton now wants to be premier
The Prairie putsch
Photography by Chris Bolin

Ed Stelmach, who announced his eventual retirement from the Alberta premiership last week, is technically leaving as an undefeated champion. He won five elections as an MLA, came up the middle to shock the nation and succeed Ralph Klein as Progressive Conservative leader in 2006, and won one of the largest majorities in Alberta history in 2008’s general election.

He guided the PCs to impressive strength in the polls in the city once known as “Redmonton.” As Alberta’s first Ukrainian premier, he will retain living-legend status for the rest of his days. He is even relatively popular with the province’s public-sector unions, who are fretting over his departure.

But there is one group he never quite won over. Unfortunately for Stelmach, it was his own caucus, which collectively became convinced in December that the premier was leading them to disaster. A very quick decision to resign was the result. High-ranking employees in the premier’s office showed up for work on the morning of Jan. 25 suspecting nothing amiss, and were horrified to learn at around 9 a.m. that their fiercely loyal, unfailingly considerate boss was giving up.

The collapse in confidence is no mystery. Ever since the province’s budget tilted into the red in early 2009, Stelmach had given endless assurances that Alberta would be back in surplus for 2012-13. His finance minister, Ted Morton, was confidently repeating those assurances as late as November 2010. All along, Tories facing re-election had clung to the hope that, whatever Stelmach’s errors in areas like oil-patch policy and health care, they would have a balanced budget to run behind in spring 2012.

But this precious verity was snatched away when Stelmach uttered fatal words about future surpluses in a year-end interview with Sun Media: “There may be a delay in that.” The delay, he would later admit, is virtually certain. Alberta’s budget is suffering from a weak U.S. dollar, which hurts agriculture and resource exports, and low natural gas prices, currently pinned down by a supply glut that could last a decade. On Dec. 16, the U.S. added 480 trillion cubic feet of shale gas to its domestic reserves estimates; that’s as much methane, counting only what’s under U.S. soil, as the entire world uses in 4½ years at current rates.

The gas glut is worsening as top Alberta economists warn that spending is out of control and the province is essentially in structural deficit. Yet Stelmach balked at deep cuts even as his caucus was finding out in the newspaper that the balanced-budget plan was out the window. A confrontation was inevitable, and it’s said to have been led by finance minister Morton. Morton wouldn’t confirm that he had threatened to resign, although he did leave cabinet on Jan. 26, standing with Stelmach in an awkward show of party solidarity as he declared his intention to succeed him.

Conservative sources insist that there were other reasons for Stelmach’s sudden departure. Stelmach had promised to go to the polls in spring 2012, but says his successor will be free to wait until the legal deadline, March 2013. The premier complained of rancorous “right-wing” personal attacks in his resignation statement; he appeared to be referring to the schismatic Wildrose Alliance party, but he must be aware of cruel whispers within his own ranks. (One Calgary PC organizer told Maclean’s: “He has a .22-calibre mind in a .357 Magnum world.”) Stelmach’s laconic, short-tempered chief of staff Ron Glen has also been a focus of hostility.

For better or worse, Frederick Lee Morton has been branded the ringleader of the fatal conspiracy, and was first to seize the opportunity thereby provided. Yet victory is by no means secure for the University of Calgary political scientist, son of a Wyoming oilman who was once speaker of that state’s House of Representatives. (The late Warren Morton, as Alberta leftists are fond of pointing out, was a crucial supporter of future U.S. vice-president Dick Cheney’s first run for Congress in 1978.) Morton has been at the U of C since 1981, when he was tipped off to a job opening by his frequent collaborator Rainer Knopff; the pair had, as University of Toronto graduate students, studied under self-exiled American conservative scholars Allan Bloom and Walter Berns.

Morton, first elected to the Alberta legislature in 2004, is perhaps best known outside the province as the quotable voice of the influential “Calgary School,” as one of Alberta’s elected “senators-in-waiting” (1998), and as an architect of the 2001 “firewall letter” to then-premier Ralph Klein. The letter, also signed by private citizen Stephen Harper, proposed an “Alberta Agenda,” suggesting that the province should imitate Quebec and handle its own public pensions, tax collection, and policing. The letter was followed by a debate about whether the added management costs would outweigh the savings. (An Alberta Pension Plan would almost certainly drive premiums upward in the other, demographically older provinces, and the RCMP, which comes with bilingualism-related expenses, is costly relative to local police agencies.)

A revival of the Alberta Agenda would have the potential to not only steal a march on the Wildrose Alliance (whose leader, Danielle Smith, endorsed the firewall letter as a Calgary Herald editorialist), it might even help Alberta with its budget mess. Morton’s record as a critic of the Charter of Rights also suggests that he might put its long-dormant notwithstanding clause back into play. As a historian of Henry Morgentaler’s legal struggles, he was scornful of the 1988 Supreme Court decision that ended them. He also applauded the Alberta Court of Appeal’s ruling in the pivotal gay-rights case of college employee Delwin Vriend; the Alberta court upheld the school’s right to fire Vriend, but the Supreme Court decided in his favour in 1998 and rewrote the province’s human rights code.

Positions like these built Morton an impressive cult in Alberta—but they mobilize enemies, too. Few remember how Stelmach’s rise to the top required the help, or at least help from the supporters of, the man now perceived to have ousted him. The Conservative leadership is decided in what Americans would call an “open primary”; any resident can vote for the $5 price of a PC membership. On the first ballot in the 2006 race, Morton finished a strong second behind Calgary’s establishment candidate, former provincial minister and self-described “progressive” Jim Dinning. In the intervening week, voters flocked to both Dinning and Stelmach, who bumped Morton into third; 86 per cent of Morton’s hard-right supporters switched to Stelmach in the final runoff.

Another anyone-but-Morton push seems likely, and he has new burdens to go along with it. When he was Stelmach’s resource development minister, he introduced land-use reforms intended to streamline large industrial projects; those reforms have angered landowners, particularly in the rural south, which was overwhelmingly Morton’s strongest source of support in ’06. Moreover, the parlous state of Alberta’s budget may have been news to some Tory MLAs, but it cannot have been a surprise to the finance minister.

If Morton is to be stopped, however, someone will have to stand in his path. The caucus eligibles mentioned most often are rookie Justice Minister Alison Redford, 45, a Calgarian with an eye-popping record of international human-rights work, and Deputy Premier Doug Horner, 50, a third-generation member of a western political dynasty. Redford has remained quiet; Horner has all but declared his candidacy. Meanwhile, much of Alberta’s young political talent is tied up in a long queue for ministerial jobs in Ottawa, and Commons finance committee chairman James Rajotte, 40-year-old MP for Edmonton-Leduc, is attracting strong interest and contemplating a run.

Dinning, now chancellor of the University of Calgary (and thus, in a weird twist, Morton’s sorta-kinda boss), has said, “I do not want to run”—though he added, “You never say never.” Preston Manning, though never without hopeful young admirers, is 68 and seems to prefer backseat driving when it comes to Alberta politics. And Maclean’s could find no one in the province who thinks former federal minister Jim Prentice will leave his new inner-circle job at CIBC, whose lowest-paid senior executive earned $2.4 million in 2009.