Fiscal hawk Morton presents tough test for Danielle Smith
Ted Morton had little choice but to resign as finance minister on Thursday. By doing so, he divorces himself from a budget that would have left him open to attack from Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith that he was abandoning his fiscally conservative beliefs.
With aspirations to become premier, Morton would inevitably need to step down from cabinet to seek the Tory leadership. By doing so now, he washes his hands of what is almost certain to be more red-ink spending and places himself squarely as the fiscal voice of the party, and the main person capable of fending off Smith’s aggressive Wildrose.
His decision to leave cabinet and announce he will run for the party’s leadership removes him from the awkward position that Stelmach’s ill-timed departure has forced upon cabinet ministers. By saying before the spring legislative session that he will not run again, Stelmach has potentially set the stage for mass resignations from cabinet by those seeking the leadership. That would surely disrupt the business of government.
All ministers eyeing the leadership will eventually have to follow Morton’s lead. His announcement Thursday gives him the advantage of a head start, skilfully manoeuvring himself out of what could have been a no-win situation.
Morton already has one deficit budget under his belt, which he delivered in February 2010, just a month after being sworn in as finance minister. Unlike the upcoming budget, the 2010 blueprint really wasn’t his. Yet Smith, a fiscal hawk whose policies are straight out of the Morton school of finance, still used the 2010 budget against him. She came out swinging at the time, taking direct aim at Morton as a big spender. She then released her party’s shadow budget, slashing expenses and promising to return the province to a surplus within two years.
If Morton stayed on as finance minister and signed his name to a second deficit budget, he would have a tough time retaining political credibility with the province’s Blue Tories and countering Smith’s accusations that he is part of the problem.
Morton told the Herald’s editorial board a year ago that he had a long-term fiscal plan that would improve Alberta’s bottom line over the next year or two, while weaning the province off its reliance on volatile energy revenue. It included either legislated spending caps or mandated savings, neither of which have happened. He is now in a position to map his own course.
The departure of a premier and a finance minister within two days does little to instil confidence from the investment community, business leaders and the public — a point Smith hammered home Thursday. It reinforces what we said in this space Thursday — the Tories must not dawdle in resolving their leadership issue.