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Death of Gene Zwozdesky symbolizes end of Progressive Conservative era in Alberta politics

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Gene Zwozdesky in the days he was Alberta's minister of health (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The death Sunday of Gene Zwozdesky -- first elected as a Liberal but for many years afterward a Conservative, a cabinet minister who could be counted on to smooth over messes made by others, and eventually Speaker of the Legislature -- can be said to mark the symbolic end of the Progressive Conservative Era in Alberta.

There are lots of old PCs still around, of course, some of them not so old. But Zwozdesky's character nicely encapsulates the qualities that made the PCs so successful for so long in Alberta.

Zwoz, as he was known, was 70 when cancer took him. He was respected by most of political Alberta and liked by pretty well everyone. He was a natural retail politician who oozed personal charm. He served six terms in the legislature, four as a Conservative in a traditionally Liberal riding. In all, he served as an MLA for 22 years.

So it was almost astonishing when the Saskatchewan-born hardy perennial of Alberta elections was swept away in the Orange Wave of 2015. The tributes pouring in from all corners of Alberta and all points of the province's political compass are the real thing.

Zwozdesky was an old smoothie of a type not much found among conservatives in this era of belligerent, confrontational neoliberalism. It's very hard to imagine him mocking a prime minister from any party for anything, least of all for having been a teacher -- a job Zwozdesky held himself. He was also a professional musician and dancer, a full-time promoter of Ukrainian culture in Canada, and an enthusiastic supporter of the arts.

He was elected in 1993 as a Liberal in the Edmonton-Avonmore riding, and re-elected for the same party in 1997 in Edmonton-Mill Creek, as the district had been renamed. He crossed the floor in 1998 after a dispute over fiscal policy with Liberal Leader Nancy MacBeth, sitting as an Independent for a month before joining the governing PCs led by Ralph Klein.

Some politicians might never have been forgiven for a floor crossing, but you really had to work hard to dislike Zwozdesky.

Thereafter, he was re-elected four more times in the same riding until the general election of 2015. Even after that, he put partisanship aside and helped teach the ropes to the new Speaker, Bob Wanner, and a freshman class of MLAs mostly made up of New Democrats.

In cabinet, he earned the nickname "The Wizard of Zwoz" for, as political blogger Dave Cournoyer described it, "his seeming ability to reverse unpopular decisions made by his cabinet predecessors."

The mellifluous old crooner certainly demonstrated that talent in 2010 when premier Ed Stelmach handed him the challenging health portfolio to glue the teacups back together after the previous minister, Ron Liepert, and Alberta Health Services CEO Stephen Duckett, two bulls in a china shop if ever there were, finished smashing up the crockery.

Zwozdesky's calming approach soon enveloped the political side of health care like a velvet fog.

While minister, Liepert had worked his reverse Midas touch to the full and torqued pretty much the entire province into a full-blown swivet over the state of the health file. It got to the point crowds of seniors booed PC MLAs on those occasions they showed up in their own communities -- in other words, it was a burgeoning political catastrophe for the premier.

Zwozdesky took over and crooned his soothing song in every corner of Alberta. The result -- excellent from Stelmach's perspective -- was that plunging Conservative polls stabilized, Wildrose popularity stalled, and pretty well everyone went happily back to sleep. If some decisions needed to be made, well, Zwozdesky was looking into them.

Indeed, if Zwozdesky had a flaw as a minister, it was that while he talked to everyone and studied everything, somehow key decisions often didn't seem to get made. Still, in his defence, that was exactly what the PCs needed in 2010, and he did oversee the swift repatriation of the disastrous Duckett to Australia, where Liepert had found him, after the Notorious Cookie Incident.

For his part, Liepert ended up as a so-far-undistinguished Conservative backbencher in the House of Commons.

Zwozdesky was no market-fundamentalist ideologue. He was a likeable old-style politician who could contribute and prosper in a big tent party like the PCs, which welcomed a lot of Albertans who in other provinces would have been partisans of other parties.

Things are different now in the cranky and radicalized conservative movement.

Zwozdesky is survived by his wife Christine, two children and three grandchildren.

Myron Thompson, known for his cowboy hat and hard-right views, dead at 82

First elected the same year as Zwozdesky, the death from cancer of Myron Thompson, Reform Party and later Conservative MP for the Wild Rose riding, was reported the same weekend.

But if Zwozdesky's death is a symbol of the end of an era, Thompson's may be a harbinger of the coming of a less kindly one.

Born in Colorado, Thompson moved to the Alberta town of Sundre in the 1960s, where he served as mayor and councillor. He held his southwestern Alberta seat in the House of Commons until his retirement in 2008.

In Parliament, he was the very model of the modern rural conservatives who now dominate this province's right-wing political parties. He supported the U.S. invasion of Iraq, vociferously opposed same-sex marriage, and fought restrictions on firearms ownership.

Unlike most Alberta politicians, Thompson wore his cowboy hat all year round, not just for two weeks during the Calgary Stampede. He was 82.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Toronto Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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