Morton quits cabinet for bid to lead Tories
Surprise exit of finance minister starts leadership race
Ted Morton resigned Thursday as Alberta finance minister but will remain in caucus, a move that unofficially fires the starter pistol on the Tory leadership race and has Conservative MLAs conflicted over when Premier Ed Stelmach should exit.
Morton announced his surprise departure — and plans to run for the Conservative party crown — at a hastily called news conference with Stelmach at McDougall Centre in Calgary, following a one-hour meeting between the premier and former finance minister.
The resignation came less than 24 hours after Morton said he had no plans to quit and the same week Stelmach announced he will resign as premier in the coming months.
The two Tory heavyweights said the decision is based entirely on Morton’s interest in the party reins, and the need to resign his portfolio to avoid any perceptions he’s using his office to advance his leadership aspirations.
“I believe it would be difficult, if not impossible, for me to continue to discharge my duties as minister with the required perception of impartiality,” Morton told reporters.
“The media coverage and speculation around the impending leadership contest would be a serious distraction from the process of governing, particularly the passage of the budget.”
Treasury Board president Lloyd Snelgrove, who has no interest in the leadership, will assume the role of finance minister and deliver the upcoming provincial budget in the legislature.
Morton’s resignation came just two days after he was ready to quit his post over what sources said was a budget he doesn’t agree with, and as Tory MLAs acknowledge many caucus members aren’t happy with the spending blueprint.
Stelmach reiterated his demand for all ministers interested in the leadership to resign their portfolios. With Morton the centre of speculation about who will be the next Tory boss, it was appropriate for him to step aside, the premier said.
“Minister Morton supports this government and he supports the provincial budget,” Stelmach said. “This does not reflect a caucus divided over budget or any other issue.”
The premier said he will only submit a letter officially announcing his resignation to the PC party after the spring legislature session, which is slated to run until June. Party president Bill Smith said it’s unlikely the leadership contest will be held before summer, likely pushing the vote until the fall.
Political analyst David Taras believes Morton made a wise, calculated decision to resign on the premise that he supports the budget and premier, and is simply trying to avoid a conflict over the leadership.
“They agreed to disagree in an amiable way,” said Taras, professor at Mount Royal University. “Stelmach doesn’t have to deal with Morton and his discontent, and Morton doesn’t have to wear a budget he doesn’t agree with.”
Morton seemingly announced an unofficial platform policy — calling for disillusioned conservatives who’ve fled to the Wildrose Alliance to comeback into the Tory fold. He wants to merge the two organizations under the big-tent Progressive Conservative party.
“What the (PC party) has in common with the Wildrose is more important than our differences. I have concerns about vote splitting,” Morton said, calling his party “the mother ship.”
But Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith said Morton’s call for her party to join the Tories is simply “delusional.”
Smith said she was looking forward to battling Stelmach in the next election, but maintained she’s not concerned about facing a candidate like Morton who could galvanize grassroots conservatives.
“I don’t care who they have at the helm of the PC party,” she said. “It’s time for us to turn the page and start a new chap-
I don’t care who they have at the helm of the PC party DANIELLE SMITH, WILDROSE ALLIANCE
ter in Alberta’s history.”
The finance minister’s announcement came as the Tory caucus wrapped up two days of meetings in Calgary, where MLAs debated legislation for the upcoming session and discussed the budget that was finalized by the Treasury Board committee on Tuesday.
Many caucus members came into the meetings with serious concerns about the budget and were going to voice their worries to the premier, said one Conservative MLA who asked not to be identified.
But Stelmach’s resignation earlier in the week placated many caucus members who figured there was no point forcing an internal battle over the spending plan when a new leader will soon come in with a fresh approach. “That really changes the landscape, I believe, and MLAs that were concerned with the budget are willing to move forward with it,” said the MLA. “There was going to be an internal caucus battle.”
With the budget now headed for the printers, the focus turns to the leadership race. Morton’s early declaration to run for the party crown will likely push other contenders within cabinet to resign their posts in the coming weeks.
Justice Minister Alison Red- ford, a Calgary MLA who’s considering a run, said she will remain in her post for the time being until she makes a decision on a bid.
With candidates already declaring, some Conservative MLAs believe having Stelmach remain on as premier until the fall may be an untenable situation for the government, and that a quick transition is needed. “You’ve got to be realistic about the fact it’s not situation normal anymore,” said Redford, who believes selecting a new leader by summer is a sensible approach.
Tory MLA George Groeneveld, Stelmach’s former agriculture minister, said the ideal scenario is to have a new leader by June. “My preference is to get into the race quickly.”
But Stelmach loyalists such as Snelgrove and Infrastructure Minister Ray Danyluk think Stelmach should remain premier until the fall, allowing candidates more time to fundraise and meet Albertans.
“You better have $1 million in your bank if you want to run a credible campaign,” Snelgrove said. “It’s going to take a little time for people to actually make a good decision based on that reality.”