Calgary Herald

Morton quits cabinet for bid to lead Tories

Surprise exit of finance minister starts leadership race

- JASON FEKETE

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.”

 ?? Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald ?? Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, listening to PC leaders at news conference Thursday, calls ex-finance minister Ted Morton’s call for her party to join the Tories simply “delusional.”
Stuart Gradon, Calgary Herald Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith, listening to PC leaders at news conference Thursday, calls ex-finance minister Ted Morton’s call for her party to join the Tories simply “delusional.”

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