Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Baffling Rise and Fall of Ed Stelmach

The only thing more surprising than Ed Stelmach's ascension to the Premier's seat was his departure from it. In effect, "surprising" would probably be the best way to sum up Stelmach's time as premier. Or "baffling". Or "incomprehensible". After all, the most boring politician the world has ever known gave Alberta five absolutely thrilling years in politics. In Alberta, that's no small feat.

To understand Stelmach's time as Premier, it's important to first understand that he should never have become Premier. Elected as PC leader the same day Stephane Dion was elected LPC leader, Stelmach's story was very much the same as Dion's. He'd proven himself to be a mostly competent Cabinet Minister, apart from one time when as transport minister he floated the idea of moving the "fast lane" on the highways to the right. He was an afterthought to most in a crowded leadership race with 8 candidates. Still, he found himself in third place with 15% of the vote after the first ballot and, with members tired of a lengthy fight between two flawed frontrunners, Stelmach surged up the middle to win. Sound familiar?

The only difference between Stelmach and Dion is that Dion probably spoke better English.

OK, OK, I'm just being mean. But hearing Stelmach speak is truly a unique experience. Graham Thompson described it as follows:

If we're ever in the situation where the world is about to be destroyed by a giant asteroid in 15 minutes, somebody should have Premier Ed Stelmach hold a news conference and broadcast it around the globe.

For anyone watching, that final quarter of an hour will seem like an eternity. At the 10-minute mark people will be cheering on the asteroid.

To sit through a Stelmachian news conference is to witness an end to the laws of relativity and syntax as we know them.

But the thing is - it would still be worth going to that final press conference because, if you could fight through the urge to gauge your ears out, you'd probably catch a gem. Like the time when he called the Calgary Stampede, "the Alberta Stampede". Oops.

So how did the Great Miscommunicator do it? How did he win a Klein-esque 72 of 83 seats in his first election? A good question, and one without an obvious answer. Hence my description of Stelmach's political career as "baffling". Personally, I'd chalk it up to Ed being a decent guy and the lack of alternatives - remember, this was before Danielle Smith learned to walk on water. Albertans were fairly happy with how things were going so why mess with a good thing?

And that's basically how Stelmach's tenure as Premier went. He wasn't as exciting as Ralph. He wasn't the leader Lougheed was. But he also didn't mess up like Getty. There were no big scandals - a few sexist tweets by a caucus member, a silly fight over domain names, a screw up on tourism pamphlets - this is hardly the stuff that brings down governments. Yes, he took the province into deficit - but who didn't?

Which brings us to the second riddle of Ed Stelmach's career - why pack it in? The obvious answer is that the party didn't want him. To outsiders, that may be hard to understand. The man gained 10 seats in his first election. Yet he only picked up 77% in his leadership review, and endured constant criticism from his MLAs and party members.

Was this because Progressive Conservatives were worried about the Wildrose Alliance ending their dynasty? I'd argue it was the exact opposite reason. When you're in power for 40 years, winning elections becomes an afterthought. Instead of worrying about the opposition, you look inwards. Remember, Stelmach was a guy who won the leadership with 15% of the party behind him. It's not surprising that some people inside the tent weren't fans of his. I remember talking to a PC friend of mine last year and he was sure Stelmach wouldn't make it to the next election, due to pressure from the caucus, the party, and (most of all) the fundraisers. I laughed, but it looks like he was right.

Or not.

Another possibility is that Stelmach just didn't like being Premier - he never looked like he enjoyed it the way Ralph Klein clearly did. After a slew of uninspiring budgets, it was obvious he didn't have any great ambitions for the province. Most people who follow politics roll their eyes when politicians say they want to spend more time with their families but...is that really so hard to believe?
I suppose we'll never know the real reason Stelmach left. Which is fine. His entire career defied political common sense and the easy explanation - it seems fitting his retirement should too.



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