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When Thomas Lukaszuk announced he was running for the leadership of the Progressive Conservative Party in May 2014, he attracted a huge throng of reporters to the street in front of his favourite downtown Edmonton café.
Promising "inspirational and challenging" leadership to the crowd of journalists and camera people, it must have seemed to Lukaszuk as if his salad days as deputy premier, labour minister and advanced education minister -- always in the thick of it, always with a ready answer, even if it wasn't a very good one -- were about to return, this time as Alberta's premier.
For a spell, the often acerbic, frequently charming, always magnificently coiffed Polish-born politician had played the role of the "Gorgeous George" of Alberta politics. In their respective if not entirely dissimilar fields, 1950s professional wrestler George Raymond Wagner, "the Human Orchid," and Thomas Adam Lukaszuk, were both known for their hair as much as their professional prowess. In other words, both were performers, not just jobholders.
Alas, it was not to be. The PCs' anointed saviour, Jim Prentice, won the leadership race in a walk. Only later did it become apparent that Prentice was a hopeless boob.
Ensconced as Tory leader and premier, Prentice quickly sent Lukaszuk, 46, into exile in the deepest backbenches, presumably as an uncomfortable reminder of the catastrophic reign of Alison Redford, whom the former deputy premier had prominently served.
Then came the general election of May 5, 2015, and Lukaszuk was swept away with all the other Tories in the Edmonton area and enough in other parts of the province to result in a strong, stable New Democrat majority for Premier Rachel Notley. Conservative ears are still ringing, and an NDP social worker named Nicole Goehring is now MLA for the Edmonton-Castle Down riding Lukaszuk represented for 14 years.
Nowadays, Lukaszuk seems to while a way a lot of his hours on social media, sometimes unable to resist the kind of sharp-tongued arguments and smart-aleck remarks that got him into hot water from time when he was in office. He is said to be looking for work in the corporate sector.
Well, Lukaszuk had his fans as well as his foes, as did the third candidate, Calgary's Ric McIver, but now that the dust had settled, it's hard to imagine the Tories could have done much worse than they did with Prentice.
McIver is now the leader of what's left of the party, and Lukaszuk is singing a new tune about the need for a new Alberta political movement that will "unite the centre, as opposed to unite the right."
"There are many disaffected PCs and Liberals who may have voted in the last election for NDP or WRP as a protest, but naturally, in the absence of anger, gravitate toward the political centre," Lukaszuk told me recently.
"I call them pragmatics," he said. "…No matter how hard NDP and WRP will try to fill that void in the middle, their membership and 'special interest' support base will make it difficult."
Talking to other people, Lukaszuk seemed to take that idea a little farther, apparently actually calling for the formation of a new party -- presumably one that would welcome the likes of Thomas Lukaszuk as its leader.
In a column by Edmonton Journal political writer Graham Thomson, Lukaszuk brusquely wrote off the Wildrose Opposition as too far to the right, the Alberta Liberals as "dead in the water," and his former Progressive Conservatives as pretty much a hopeless wreck, more than a million dollars in debt and headed for oblivion.
And if you were thinking the Alberta Party, well, "it may be part of the answer, but it is not the answer," he told me. "After six years in existence, it still is more of a Twitter 'discussion club' than a political party with proper infrastructure -- constituency associations, offices, funding, etc."
None of this is going to make Lukaszuk many friends among the parties that occupy the right side of the political spectrum hereabouts, so presumably it'll have to be a new party or nothing if he returns to provincial politics.
But then, this is not exactly anything new to Lukaszuk, whom the Journal's Thomson rightly characterized as able "to ruffle feathers and make enemies in virtually every portfolio he touched."
He aroused particular anger in the labour movement for his role as the front person for strongly anti-union laws pushed through by the Redford Government and later repealed by Prentice. In the advanced education ministry, he was the poster boy for the brutal funding cuts Redford imposed after the so-called "Bitumen Bubble," which now seems quaint, caused her government to reduce its budget projections. He seemed to relish every fight that resulted.
As for Lukaszuk's centrist credentials, that is a matter of controversy. Certainly he is a centrist on many social issues, quite happy, for example, to show up and be counted at a Pride Parade. But it's fair to characterize his positions on budgets and labour relations as being as far to the right as anything advocated by the Wildrose Party.
Then again, as he has been quoted suggesting, maybe that was all Redford's idea, and he was just serving loyally.
Regardless, nothing could be more delightful to Alberta political commentators than the idea of Thomas Lukaszuk founding his own political party. The chances of such an enterprise succeeding, though, seem remote.
If by some miracle Lukaszuk does succeed, he's going to require someone with a more diplomatic nature to take over the management of his social media accounts immediately!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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