Stelmach’s and Morton’s unprecedented day
In essence, Premier Ed Stelmach helped launch Ted Morton’s race for his own job yesterday. All that was missing was the checkered flag and the announcement — “gentlemen, start your engines.”
When the premier’s communications director, Jerry Bellikka, announced that Stelmach would be entering the room shortly followed by Morton and Treasury Board president Lloyd Snelgrove, I thought Stelmach would speak first, the new finance minister, Snelgrove, would say a few words, and then after they left the room, Morton would come down and announce why he was stepping down as Alberta’s minister of finance.
Instead, the three of them entered the packed media conference room at the McDougall Centre together at about 3:45 p.m. smiling and looking like the best of friends. It was a great show of unity. Call it the turn-the-other-cheek, love-your-enemies political show.
Stelmach, looking more relaxed and sounding less wooden than usual, spoke of unity in caucus. He repeated some of what he said on Tuesday when he stunned Albertans with news he would not run in the next election, and reminded the room that back on March 21, 2006, when he became the first person to announce his candidacy to replace Ralph Klein, he resigned his cabinet post as intergovernmental relations minister.
It was a theme Morton picked up on in his prepared statement.
“Early in the 2006 PC leadership campaign, Ed Stelmach became the first minister to resign from cabinet to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest and to facilitate a smooth transition in the operation of his ministry,” said Morton.
“At the time, I was one of many Albertans who admired the principled position he took. It was the right thing to do then — and it is the right thing to do now.”
Whew! Talk about a nice save. It’s even somewhat credible on the surface — but only on the surface.
Everyone knows what’s really going on. Morton — a fiscal hawk — did not want to deliver a turkey of a deficit budget this spring, leaving himself open to getting carved up by Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith and even other colleagues who might run for the Tory leadership.
Indeed, it was Morton’s determination to resign as finance minister that precipitated Stelmach to beat him to the punch on Tuesday.
This whole spectacle is reminiscent of watching a puppet show from the front, and everything looks like it’s going on without a hitch, but when you watch from behind the scenes, you can see the puppet masters punching and pinching each other.
“It is my intention to seek the leadership of our party upon the premier’s departure,” said Morton, nodding toward his smiling boss.
When asked later what he meant Wednesday when he said he supported the upcoming budget he refuses to deliver, the answer was classic Morton.
“I’m always surprised that all of you bright people in the media don’t understand that budgets are put together with a large divergence of opinion, particularly in a caucus of a centre-right coalition as large as ours. We have some arguments. Those arguments can get pretty strenuous. There are a lot of compromises, everyone has to give up something,” explained Morton. He added that he was asked the same question last year after he delivered the largest deficit budget in the history of the province just one month after being appointed finance minister.
“I’ll give you the same answer I gave you last year. Was I happy with last year’s budget? No. Probably the premier wasn’t either. (Education Minister) Dave Hancock wasn’t happy either, but at the end of the day, we make the decision and everybody supports it and governments that have that kind of caucus solidarity succeed and those that don’t fail.”
It’s a good answer. In short, Morton was saying, I can’t deliver this budget as the finance minister, but I can sup- port it as a backbencher.
Morton used Thursday’s media conference to reach out to disaffected Tories who have joined the Wildrose.
“All of you have heard me say that I think what the PC Association of Alberta has in common with the Wildrose is more important than our differences and I have concerns about vote splitting, and my goal, as I’ve stated repeatedly in public over the past six months, is to bring the two parties back together.”
After the three amigos left the room, Smith took the podium. If she’s worried about many of the disaffected Tories who abandoned the PC party following Stelmach’s disastrous meddling with the royalty regime, she certainly didn’t show it, calling Morton’s invitation to return to the Tory fold “patronizing” and “pretty delusional.”
If it is unprecedented for a premier to help launch the campaign of a political rival vying for his job, Smith pointed out something else never seen before.
“I think it’s a bit unprecedented to have a premier and a finance minister resign in the same week before a budget is to be presented later on in the month,” she said.
“Despite the brave faces that they are trying to put on, I think there’s a real division in the Tory caucus over the budget.”
It remains to be seen if the size of the rift in the 40-yearold Tory dynasty is also unprecedented and impossible to bridge.