While Thomas Lukaszuk's chances of succeeding in the race to become leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party always seemed like a long shot, one has to feel a certain sympathy with the Edmonton MLA's protest his party won't permit a real unscripted debate to take place among the three candidates for the job.
The forums organized by the party are tightly scripted and aimed at party insiders, not potential new members who might sign up to back a candidate that impressed them, he complained to a local newspaper late last week.
The explanation is pretty simple, though. The PC Party establishment is going to make darned sure that this time the heir apparent wins -- unlike the 2006 and 2011 leadership races, both of which ended up in the elevation to premier of a person the party's old warhorses had deemed not quite up to the job.
Actually, the same thing happened in 1992 as well, but Ralph Klein worked out rather well for the party in the role of premier of Alberta, thank you very much, something that can't really be said of Ed Stelmach or especially Alison Redford.
This time the party is determined to see the frontrunner win, and the frontrunner is Jim Prentice, not Lukaszuk. In other words, the old fixaroo is more than halfway in!
From the perspective of ordinary Albertans, as from that of Lukaszuk, this is a pity.
Us because we’ll deprived of what could be a highly entertaining hour or two of television, as Lukaszuk, with the desperation of a last-place candidate, threw caution and the hopes of a future cabinet post to the wind and tried to trip up Prentice.
Lukaszuk because he's the only one of the three who is a really entertaining public speaker, capable of delivering a little bombast along with the usual anodyne platitudes. Unlike the other two, Lukaszuk also has a full range of facial expressions, plus just the faintest echo of the accent of his native Poland. It's an appealing combination to most people who hear him speak.
Calgary MLA Ric McIver, notwithstanding the No. 2 candidate's apparent far-out social conservative views and the loony right types he hangs with, has a speaking style that's about as exciting as a block of wood. He seems to have the facial expressions to match.
And Prentice -- a former banker, corporate lobbyist and federal politician -- has a way of speaking that would be earnestly persuasive in a boardroom or a one-on-one meeting, but is unlikely to light many voters afire on the stump.
In other words, Lukaszuk's best chance to shine was in a real rough and tumble debate, and he's not going to get it because the PC grandees aren't going to give him the chance.
Their objective is certainly to ensure that Prentice can't be pinned down on what he really plans to do in a number of areas. The frontrunner is running a classic low-bridge campaign designed to reveal as little as possible and alienate no voter who might be persuaded to give the tired old PC dynasty one more chance. This, without doubt, is why Prentice has been skipping debates organized by third parties whenever he can.
Farther down the road, the party also wants to make sure opposition leaders aren't tipped off to the best potential lines of attack.
This indicates recognition by at least some of the Tory leadership that the world has turned and Alberta isn't what it used to be, thanks in particular to the bizarre spectacle of Redford's brief and chaotic tenure at the helm.
The fiction peddled to generations of Albertans has been that they really should buy a party membership for a small sum and vote for the premier (for that's what the Tory party leader always turned out to be) because this was the only true expression of democracy when general elections were a sure thing.
There was always just enough truth to this notion to make it dangerous.
Now, though, there are two parties that could conceivably form the government, even if they are manifestations of the same right-wing political movement. The Tories will be extremely fortunate if 50,000 members new and old turn up to vote for a leader on Sept. 6, compared with 133,000 in 2006 and 78,000 in 2011.
In other words, once he's been selected the leader, Prentice faces a real election campaign that he could very well lose, and it behooves the party's strategists to take no chances with the leadership-selection process that could wound their leader at the ballot box later on.
This is bad news for Lukaszuk.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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