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Awkward! When the rain fell and waters rose, Alberta premier headed to Portugal

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Ed Stelmach

It has been axiomatic since the days of Noah that if you want to survive in politics, and the waters are rising anywhere in your jurisdiction, you get your ass to the riverside and start filling sandbags. Politicians who ignore this universal law of politics do so at their own peril.

Of course, it doesn't hurt if you make sure there's a photographer in the vicinity when you wade in to the top of your hip-waders. But the important thing is that you're there, and that you're seen to be there.

So if you're on the beach in Florida when the floodwaters start rising back home, or you're hiking through the backwoods of Patagonia, you get yourself to the nearest airport and get the heck back to the flood zone as fast as an Air Canada Airbus can carry you. Before you're within a kilometre of the airport departure gate, you need to have your media-relations flunky issue a press release saying you're on your way.

This is a universal law that applies equally to the leaders of democracies and dictatorships, in big countries and little provinces. It doesn't matter if there's nothing useful you can do. It doesn't matter if you've created the greatest emergency response system in the world on your watch. It sure doesn't matter if you've dispatched whole platoons of ministers and deputy ministers, or even your deputy premier. It doesn't matter how quickly you've rolled out the biggest flood-relief package in your province's history.

If you are not there, you are done like dinner.

As Alberta blogger Dave Cournoyer observed, "there are significant symbolic reasons why political leaders show up at disaster areas."

So, pretty clearly, Premier Ed Stelmach's non-appearance when the floodwaters rose in southeastern Alberta at the end of June was a powerful symbol of how long the Alberta Conservatives have had it far too easy politically -- and how tone deaf Stelmach is to the fundamental verities of politics, even in Alberta.

Instead of showing up in the flood zone, Premier Stelmach … went to Portugal!

Bookmark this Web page: Come the next provincial election, this astoundingly wrong-footed decision will come back to haunt Stelmach and his Conservatives more than any of the premier's much more substantial policy blunders from trying to close Edmonton’s psychiatric hospital, to flip-flopping on oil and gas royalties, to over-paying health care executives.

It sure as heck doesn't matter if you've bought a ticket for a short holiday in Portugal at a charity fundraiser auction and as a result were flying out that day! And explaining self-righteously that "that's why we had all our ministers there" just isn’t going to wash. For heaven's sake! As if the highest paid premier in Canada couldn't afford to pay for a later flight to Portugal!

But that's what Premier Stelmach told a local radio reporter in Medicine Hat, down in the flood zone where they've always voted Tory, no matter what, but nowadays are batting their eyes and flirting with the far-right Wildrose Alliance. And he told it in a way that suggests he just doesn’t get it about why that's not the right thing to do.

Right now, notwithstanding the fact no opposition leader had the wit to travel to the flood zone either, some clever boots Wildrose Alliance strategist is cooking up a TV ad about how when the rains came and the waters rose and Albertans really needed him, Premier Stelmach went missing in action. This is why we have recently seen both Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall and U.S. President Barack Obama, sleeves rolled up, on the scene at serious floods within their jurisdictions.

This isn't quite on a par with former U.S. president George Bush remaining on holiday while New Orleans foundered, then telling Brownie he was doin' a heckuva job, but it has the same kind of lousy optics.

Is the premier of Alberta so out of touch with the most basic political conventions that he can't figure this out? Is there no one among his political advisors that has the courage to tell him such an obvious political truth?

So it would seem. That’s why there's rain in the political forecast!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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