It was mildly entertaining yesterday afternoon to listen to Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and his sometime Finance Minister Ted Morton twist themselves like pretzels at an afternoon news conference where they claimed there are no major disagreements about anything within Progressive Conservative ranks.
This is what is known to people who are cynical about public life as "politics as usual."
Stelmach announced on Tuesday that he was going to quit. While he said nothing at the time of the divisions in his party's caucus and cabinet, choosing instead to emphasize his reluctance to suffer through a nasty U.S.-style political advertising campaign, other Conservative insiders have been quite open about the situation that led to his announcement.
Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk, for example, a Stelmach protégé, told the Edmonton Journal that some members of the Conservative government desired deep cuts to social programs that the premier was simply not willing to make.
Morton, who is patently obviously the leader of the hard-right faction within the Conservative caucus that Lukaszuk was referring to, announced at yesterday's newser that he was quitting as a member of Stelmach's cabinet. But he insisted it was only so that he could pursue his own ambition to become the party leader and premier.
For his part, Stelmach stated that, "contrary to the rampant speculation, this does not reflect a caucus divided over the budget, or any other issue."
This is true only the strictly limited sense that everyone in caucus has now agreed to vote for the budget as Stelmach wanted it to be, based on a deal that presumably saw Stelmach agree to resign and Morton's supporters promise to stop sniping at the premier while their faction's leader runs for the premier's job.
However, the fundamental ideological rift between the progressive wing of the Progressive Conservative party and the Shock Doctrine wing led by Morton can no longer be denied. It is universally known and perfectly obvious to everyone in the province.
So the kind of nice distinctions Stelmach and Morton were making yesterday are essentially meaningless to ordinary folk -- reminiscent of former U.S. President Bill Clinton's grand jury testimony that "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'is' is." They serve only to deepen public cynicism about representative democracy.
Other than confirmation of Morton's resignation, about the only other actual fact that emerged from the news conference is that the budget speech will now be read by Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove, a member of the inner circle of Stelmach's inner circle.
The only significance of that document, in turn, is that it will likely serve as the manifesto of the leading candidate of the party's progressive wing -- that is, the leader of the Anybody But Morton faction even now beginning to coalesce. As such, it must show a vision tough enough to keep politically active small-c conservatives voting PC but not so tough that more liberally minded Albertans bother to hazard a rare trip to the polls.
Everyone knows this budget will be torn to pieces the minute either Morton snatches the leadership of the Conservatives or Danielle Smith of the Wildrose Alliance triumphs in the post-convention election.
Speaking of Smith, judging from Morton's few remarks at the afternoon newser, he appears to be reconsidering his decision to abandon his Foothills-Rocky View riding to challenge the Wildrose leader face to face in Okotoks-High River.
The situation Alberta now finds itself in is eerily familiar to anyone who has followed the affairs of that other former Natural Governing Party, the L-shaped one that used to live in Ottawa.
Readers will remember how Jean Chrétien, a successful and long-serving Liberal prime minister, got sick of the disrespect he received from his fractious and ambitious finance minister, a fellow named Paul Martin. So the wily Chrétien arranged things so that Martin had barely tasted prime ministerial nectar when the cup was snatched away by Stephen Harper, an anything-but-progressive Conservative of Morton's ilk, who remains prime minister to this day.
Meanwhile, not nearly enough attention has been paid to Stelmach's remarks last Tuesday about his fears of ugly U.S.-style smear advertising.
"The danger," he explained then, "is that it could allow for an extreme right party to disguise itself as a moderate party by focusing on personality -- on me personally. This type of U.S. style wedge politics is coming into Canada, and it comes at our peril."
This is a sound point, especially as it so accurately describes the tactics of the federal branch of Stelmach's own party and their Wildrose allies in Alberta.
Have no doubt that the strategists behind the Wildrose Alliance well understand how to use wedge issues -- that is, divisive issues within a constituency that can weaken the unity of a political party.
Was Premier Stelmach merely still spooked by the 2006 "No Plan" campaign when he made that comment? Or had he gotten wind of someone's actual advertising campaign plans for 2012?
Inquiring minds want to know!
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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