The real race for Alberta’s PC leadership

Colby Cosh on the ‘boring’ race where an upset remains possible


Alberta PC leadership candidates Thomas Lukaszuk, Jim Prentice and Ric McIver pose for a ‘selfie’ before an Edmonton forum in May. (Jason Franson/CP)

Everybody has one word for the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership contest, which is trundling along through the summer, and which will eventually deliver up the province’s 16th premier. That word is “boring.” And it is, sadly, accurate. The PC race is not just boring, but boring by design.

The party brass and the caucus are committed to one man from outside provincial politics, Jim Prentice, and they do not intend to expose him to jungle hazards such as televised debates. The party has, indeed, held no open candidates’ debates at all—just members-only “forums” with hefty entry fees and no Internet streaming. The tents of the democratic circus have remained folded, as Prentice meanders throughout the province, quietly visiting key supporters and gathering up the markers he demanded during his pre-race wooing.

Still, the strategic choices of his two rivals are not without interest. The party-machine favourites cracked up in the last two PC leadership races, and this contest, like those, will not be decided by the fiddling of the PC elite or even by money. The game is pure membership-sales volume.

Former Infrastructure minister Ric McIver knows how to hustle: He once got a 91 per cent vote share while running for re-election as a Calgary alderman, albeit in a quiet year. McIver’s clear goal is to add rural Alberta to his existing Calgary support. While Prentice’s platform remains short and vague, McIver’s is heavy on specific appeals to the countryside. While assuring Albertans of an early return to a genuine surplus in the treasury, he promises more money for rural broadband and volunteer fire departments. He offers fiery denuncations of America’s sinister plans for country-of-origin beef labelling.

McIver has been almost shameless about adopting the political timbre of the old Reform party and of the late Ralph Klein. He wants the party to adopt a Reform-style “policy book” written by grassroots delegates, and he would introduce guarantees that the premier will always be available to MLAs for ear-bending, which both Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford avoided like Ebola. McIver would preserve Alberta’s flat income taxation, but add a child tax credit “when the province can afford it.”

If McIver is all about small-c conservative red meat, Thomas Lukaszuk’s candidacy is a hip vegan buffet full of progressive colour. The only northerner in the race, the stylish, relaxed Lukaszuk has mastered social media and been aggressive about seeking multicultural photo-ops. He has lined up on the liberal side of gay and lesbian wedge issues, and is benefiting from that reputation now.

He is staking out new ground by talking about his origins. Before the leadership contest, most Edmontonians probably assumed Lukaszuk was just another Ukrainian. He is, in fact, a Pole from the area around Gdansk, one whose family was associated with the Solidarity movement. He fled Poland for Canada with a handful of possessions in 1982, and, if you have noticed the federal Conservatives putting up monuments to anti-Communism, you can understand why Lukaszuk is emphasizing personal history now. (There are an awful lot of ethnic varieties Canada would not have, if not for Communism.)

The spectre of ex-premier Alison Redford, never too far from this leadership contest, resurfaced in late July when a draft auditor-general’s report on her creative use of government aircraft was leaked to the CBC. The A-G found, to no one’s surprise, that some of the premier’s air trips were purely personal business; he also, more disconcertingly, recorded evidence that passenger manifests were loaded up with fictional names to prevent other officials from riding with Redford and her entourage.

The alleged involvement of the Treasury Board in this fiddling may explain why Finance Minister Doug Horner, who might otherwise have been northern Alberta’s most natural candidate, left the door ajar for Lukaszuk. The PC machine is much stronger and better-connected in Alberta’s north, and the Wildrose insurgency is weaker there. It is not a coincidence that half or more of the careless illegal PC donations uncovered by Elections Alberta since 2010 came from parts of the northern hinterland outside metro Edmonton—an area that has around a quarter or a fifth of the province’s population, depending on how you define it.

Nor is it a coincidence that the presumptive leadership favourites who face-planted in 2006 and 2011, Jim Dinning and Gary Mar, were Calgarians who failed to make sufficient headway outside of Calgary. That summarizes the danger for 2014’s anointed Calgarian and his low-key tactics. The smart money is still on Prentice, but Lukaszuk and McIver, facing fearful odds, have at least devised hypothetical pathways to victory.

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