Rural Conservative support wavers
(The Tories) squandered an awful pile of money for an awful lot of years
LONGTIME TORY SUPPORTER ARCHIE STOCKBURGER OF SUNDRE
In Alberta’s Tory heartland, retired rancher Archie Stockburger has always enjoyed his coffee black and his politics conservative blue.
Most mornings, the Sundre resident heads to a coffee shop on Main Avenue for his caffeine fix with friends.
Like many longtime Progressive Conservatives in this foothills community of 2,500 — which has elected a Tory since the dynasty began in 1971 — it’s the politics he’s questioning these days.
A growing provincial debt load, mismanaged resources and an ineffective leader, he says, make him skeptical of the ruling Tories and — for the first time — eye rival upstart, Wildrose Alliance.
Premier Ed Stelmach’s abrupt announcement this week he’s stepping down, though, has changed everything for Stockburger.
“It’s a coin toss. Depends what the Tories do,” the 72-year-old retiree says between sips of coffee.
“They squandered an awful pile of money for an awful lot of years,” Stockburger says, adding: “It’s Conservative here, and you can’t change it.”
Across Alberta, residents have been voicing unease with the ruling Tories.
Recent polls peg the PCs in a dead heat with the Wildrose, setting up a ferocious battle for the right-wing vote.
Some observers say that battle mirrors an ideological struggle also taking place within Tory caucus ranks.
The question is whether the leadership shakeup brought on by Stelmach’s departure can woo the grassroots back into the Progressive Conservative fold, or push disaffected Tories even further away.
Caucus members deny that an internal fracture led to Stelmach’s move.
On Thursday, fiscal hawk Ted Morton announced his bid for the party leadership — a decision that requires him to step down from his finance minister post. With that move, he won’t have to deliver another budget with red ink.
The early leadership contender has a good chance of winning, but isn’t the best candidate to repair deep party rifts, says one political analyst.
Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Mount Royal University, thinks Morton is the odds-on favourite to win the Tory leadership because he’s seen as the most effective counter to Wildrose.
“But as far as uniting the party, that’s not him,” says Bratt.
“If you talk about the ‘progressive’ wing of the party and the ‘conservative’ wing of the party, he’s on the far reaches of the conservative wing.”
In Sundre, PC MLA Ty Lund, who was elected to his sixth term in 2008, is well regarded, says Myron Thompson, a retired Conservative MP recently elected to town council.
It’s the party itself that cowboy country voters are seriously questioning, he contends.
“What happened to good ol’ Conservatism,” asks Thomp-
Once you have a good saddle horse, you ride him till he’s too old
RETIREE CAL PRICE, ON WHY HE’S STICKING WITH TORIES
son. He says he’s found the answer in Danielle Smith’s Wildrose, a party he threw his support behind last year.
“The (PC) party has lost sight of the direction that has always been and always should be: a conservative way of looking at things,” Thompson charges.
Not all disgruntled Tories are willing to write off the party that has ruled Alberta for almost four decades.
Retired sawmill worker and auctioneer Cal Price says the Wildrose has promise, but he’s going to stick with the party of Lougheed and Klein in the next election.
“Once you have a good saddle horse, you ride him till he’s too old.”
Former Conservative MLA Richard Magnus, who has previously criticized the premier, says Stelmach’s departure could help bring some disenchanted party members back to their political home.
“With Stelmach gone, it’s a bit of a game-changer now. It will depend on who the leader is,” Magnus says.
“If they pick the wrong guy again, then they’re going to have a real problem come election time.”
He called Morton one of the obvious candidates to “claw back” support from the Wildrose.
“You put Morton in there and I think he’ll take a lot of that option away, and a lot of those people who went away from the party for a number of years may very well come back.”
North of Edmonton, former Tory cabinet minister Marv Moore says Conservatives have a hard battle ahead trying to wrestle support back from the Wildrose in rural Alberta.
“As far as I’m concerned, the Wildrose Party has got a leg up,” Moore says from his home in Debolt.
“It doesn’t matter who takes Stelmach’s place, it’s still going to be very tough for the Conservatives to win in rural this time around.”
Back on coffee row in Sundre, retired oilfield construction business owner Orvill Johnson, 74, says he feels Stelmach’s departure is best for the party.
Despite frustrations, he’s not ready to part ways with the PCs.
“I kind of think, if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it,” he says.