Let’s dispense with the drama of this coming weekend. Premier Ed Stelmach will almost certainly survive the leadership review at his party’s convention. I’m guessing he’ll earn 75-85% support, and that’s the last we’ll hear for about leadership challenges for a while. For the reasons why, I will point you to Duncan’s blog. He does a much better job than I can of explaining what will likely happen (and why) this weekend.
There is, however, one factor Duncan didn’t cover that I feel will help the Premier this weekend – there’s no obvious successor in the party. The Premier would find himself in a more difficult predicament if the party had someone else to turn to. In this case, the options are Ted Morton (does he appeal to moderates?), Dave Hancock (does he appeal to conservatives, and to anyone outside of Edmonton?), Brett Wilson (is he serious, and is he electable?) and, beyond that, well, it’s a tough question. Within Cabinet, there don’t appear to be many options that scream “leadership material”.
Successful governments tend to have strong ministers surrounding the first minister, many of whom seem capable of taking over the reins some day. In the early years of the Tory dynasty, Lougheed surrounded himself in Cabinet with what was seen as many of Alberta’s best and brightest. In the Klein cabinet, there were always Ministers seen as potential successors. Some of them were felled (Mar) or damaged (Norris, Oberg) by the time the race to replace him actually happened, though it didn’t stop the latter two from running. In Premier Stelmach’s cabinet, the strong ministers seem to be missing. Maybe they’ll develop over time – first-term MLA and Minister of Justice Alison Redford is highly regarded, and Parliamentary Assistants such as Doug Griffiths, Janice Sarich, Diana McQueen, and Raj Sherman have the pedigree for leading cabinet positions. But at this moment in time, there is a lack of depth at the top ranks of the party in terms of potential leaders.
So where does that leave the Tories? They’ll get through this weekend without any maor infighting. But they’re immediately faced with continuing public frustration over their handling of the H1N1 vaccine rollout, and with, for the moment, a surge in support for the Wildrose Alliance Party. Factor in that the Alliance surge seems to be coming mostly at the expense of the Tories, and there is cause for concern.
It’s too early to tell if support for the Alliance is firm, but I think we can say that, for the time being, the Tories’ free ride is over. They have a party that appears willing and quite possibly able to challenge them. Recently, I outlined what I think the Alliance needs to do to cement their support, and how the centre-left can make a stronger push for government. Both of those scenarios depend on the Tories continuing to lose touch with voters, opening up space for a challenger (or two) to move in and occupy on the political spectrum. Governments, it is said, tend to defeat themselves. This normally happens through scandal, atrophy (and losing touch with voters), or a lack of ideas. The Tories seem okay on the first one, veering towards potential problems with the second, and in trouble on the third.
Another challenge they face is one faced by all parties in power – particularly those who have been in power for a long period of time – is that it’s tough to gauge how committed their supporters are. Certainly, there are lots of committed Tories in Alberta, but it’s likely that a good number of supporters were attracted to the party and stuck with them because, to put it bluntly, it’s better to be on the winning side (the Liberal Party of Canada is faced with this problem as well). If the Alliance continues to poll well, and to look like a real alternative, that will test the level of support from more conservative Tories. If the centre-left picks up steam, that will test the commitment of more moderate supporters, particularly those in more urban ridings. Can the Tories continue to hold the middle, or will they be pulled in one direction or another? More importantly, how long will voters continue to give them a chance? I suspect that much of the support you see for the Alliance in polls at this moment is an expression of frustration with the status quo (be it the governing party itself, or the overall political climate). The Tories can probably win most of these voters back, but the longer they wait, and the more comfortable voters get with the idea of supporting someone else, the more challenging it will be to win them back. There will be a point of no return when a given voter decides they’ve had enough, and will either stay home or vote for someone else. When that happens, only something dramatic (think trading in Getty for Klein) can swing them back. I don’t think most voters have reached that point, but they’re getting closer every week.
So that’s where I see Alberta politics at this moment. We’re at a crossroads. In the coming months, and couple of years before the next general election, something will give. Maybe the Alliance will fizzle, or maybe it will continue to establish support. Maybe the centre-left will regroup and start to build momentum, or maybe it will continue to in-fight, eat its own, and further splinter. Or maybe Paul Wells’ first rule of politics will hold, and the status quo will assert itself. I’ve been wrong before, but I think we’re rapidly approaching a point of no return where the status quo will crumble. It will depend on a number of factors – some out of our control (oil and gas revenues), some within our control (do progressives or conservatives put forward the stronger vision for Alberta?) In any case, I think we’re heading for a realignment of some sorts in Alberta over the coming two elections, and 5-10 year time frame.
Worth Reading on This Topic:
Daveberta: Stelmach Tories Diving; What’s Going to Happen at the PC Leadership Review?
Chris LaBossiere: Running up the Middle…to the Right of Centre
Ken Chapman: Is Alberta About to Enter an Empire of Illusion Stage Politically?