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Stelmach's message to Morton: Be careful what you wish for!

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Alberta Finance Minister Ted Morton

There can be no love lost between Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Finance Minister Ted Morton, the man whose political brinksmanship is being credited with precipitating the premier's unexpected announcement Tuesday that he is about to step down.

Reading between the lines of the masses of uninformative and often speculative media coverage of the past 24 hours, a clear theme emerges: It's as if Premier Stelmach were saying, "OK, Ted, I'm going to let you have your wish. Sure hope you like it!"

Morton -- the self-described "liberal's nightmare, a right-winger with a PhD" -- represents the privatize-everything market fundamentalist branch of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party.

By contrast, Stelmach, while no New Democrat, represents the party's big-tent, politically pragmatic, progressive Conservative tradition.

As Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, a Stelmach protégé, stated: "There's a reason this party is called the Progressive Conservative Party, and not the Conservative Party. We need to balance fiscal responsibility with our obligations to Albertans."

That wouldn't be Morton's opinion, of course. As a highly ideological finance minister, he demanded brutal and painful cuts in the next budget, the better to compete with the neo-conservative vision of the Wildrose Alliance under Danielle Smith.

As a more pragmatic politician, there was no way Stelmach was going to subscribe to the What-Big-Teeth-You-Have-Danielle School of Political Strategy. The premier wasn't about to take the chance of destroying the province's economy and driving away his party's centrist core to satisfy Morton's notions of ideological purity.

According to several media accounts, Morton went to Stelmach with an ultimatum: Let me bring down the budget I want or I'll quit and eight of my supporters in caucus will resign and sit as independents -- then Danielle will bring you down!

Instead of firing Morton, as he was clearly entitled, Stelmach's response was to pull the plug on politics. This decision astounded almost everyone, friend and foe alike -- except, presumably, his wife Marie, who has been urging him for months to quit for the sake of his family and his health. (Not to mention his financial health -- he'll pocket close to a million dollars in "transitional allowances.")

So Stelmach gave the ambitious Morton his wish for another crack at the job he's coveted since he lost the party leadership contest to the premier in 2006. Remember, Morton surpassed the premier's support on the first ballot before Stelmach "came up the middle" to win.

But Premier Stelmach granted his rival's wish in a way that undermines Morton's ambitions.

That's because Morton's second chance will now be on Stelmach's terms -- that is, according to Stelmach's timetable, after Stelmach's more moderate budget has been brought down, and without Stelmach's sympathy or support in a multitude of tiny ways. In other words, "be careful what you wish for."

Wildrose Alliance insiders are very likely right when they complain (or in reality rejoice) that the Conservative deck is likely to be stacked against any "truly conservative" leadership candidate -- especially if that candidate's name is Freddy Lee Morton and he's just made the thin-skinned Stelmach a very, very unhappy man.

It seems likely that in the upcoming leadership race, there will be several candidates from the party's more progressive wing arrayed against Morton, the sole candidate of the far right. That guarantees him a strong position on the first ballot, and a high probability of defeat if there is a second, as happened in 2006.

What's more, as those Wildrose insiders point out, the Tories' anyone-can-join-and-vote policy makes it possible for more progressive non-Conservatives of all stripes to influence the leadership vote's outcome. By his divisive tactics in caucus, Morton has ensured that the premier -- who will stick around for quite a while yet -- will strew obstacles in his path.

If Morton loses the leadership, of course, his core supporters will likely decamp to the Wildrose Alliance while he sits out the election. But the question for the Alliance then will be if enough rank and file Conservative supporters will do the same thing, or if many will migrate back to Alberta’s Natural Governing Party one more time.

If they do, the Wildrose Alliance's hopes could be dashed.

On the other hand, if Morton wins, he will be premier for a little time, but not necessarily long enough to implement his Shock Doctrine.

The question in that event is how the progressives among rank-and-file Progressive Conservatives will behave. Will they vote Tory out of long habit, even they distrust their new far-right leader? Will they stay home on voting day and sit on their hands? Or will they vote for the Alberta Party, the Liberals or even the NDP?

Morton now has some difficult choices to make too: Should he quit cabinet to fight for the leadership and lose his bully pulpit? Should he try to remain as a disloyal and divisive cabinet minister who refuses to deliver his own budget? Should he deliver Stelmach's budget and suffer the slings and arrows of Alliance's outrage?

Ironically, both sides of this debate in Progressive Conservative circles are almost certain to end up using Smith as their official boogie-person to terrify their opponents.

How will it all end? Alas, as Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People's Republic of China, observed of the meaning of the French Revolution of 1789: it’s too soon to tell.

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

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