Ed Stelmach

Is Ed Stelmach nuts? Or is he smarter than the rest of us put together?

There’s evidence for both propositions.

When Stelmach was chosen in November 2006 by Alberta Progressive Conservative Party members as their leader, and hence as the premier of Alberta, the smart money was on him holding a snap election and getting himself a safe mandate quickly. Even the great Peter Lougheed, patron saint of Alberta airline takeovers and rural hospitals, is said to have whispered in his ear that there would never be a better time to capture a majority than right now.

Ed Stelmach knew better. He waited until March 2008 to hold an election, when public opinion polls said Albertans were growing sick and tired of both the man and his government. Everyone who was anything in Alberta politics thought he was nuts.

He captured 72 out of 83 seats in the Legislature in the March 3, 2008, election.

Stelmach’s leadership in 2009 was a gong show. Pretty much anything that could go wrong did. His health minister stumbled from disaster to catastrophe. Well-heeled seniors booed his MLAs in safe Tory ridings. His communications brain trust couldn’t tell the difference between Alberta and northern England. His polling numbers plunged.

So when his PCs’ mandatory leadership review approached in November 2009, everyone who was anything in Alberta politics figured he was in deep trouble. Dissident Tories yakked and yakked. Even his predecessor in the job, Ralph Klein, set the bar high and suggested that if he got less than a 70-per-cent mandate he should hang up his hat and spurs.

Ed Stelmach knew better. He captured 77.4 per cent support in the Nov. 7, 2009, vote.

Which brings us to the present. Stelmach’s polling numbers still aren’t all that hot — they suggest that if an election were held any time soon, which it won’t be, he’d hang on only to a razor thing majority and the right-wing Wildrose Alliance would form the opposition. Enough Liberals and New Democrats would be elected in the Edmonton area to make the provincial Legislature a busier and more interesting place.

What’s more, the trend line is not a promising one for Stelmach.

Yet with the Alliance policy convention less than two weeks away, presenting Stelmach’s right-leaning challenger with a chance for a bounce in the polls if it can find something good to talk about, the premier has chosen this moment to introduce a policy that will expose residential electricity consumers to Alberta’s volatile and expensive market for “deregulated” power.

The change means consumers will no longer be protected from huge spikes in Alberta’s already grossly overpriced and mismanaged electricity market. Judging from what the Albertan in the street has to say, this change is being greeted with cynicism and fear. Many see it as an effort to force consumers into disadvantageous long-term contracts with unscrupulous and barely regulated power suppliers. And that’s the feeling now, while the temperatures are warm and the sun is shining.

Wildrose Alliance partisans are already predicting in the media that “consumers who receive power bills in the $100 to $200 range could be jolted by one in the $500 range as a result of the change.”

Now, consider the timing. This is the summer of 2010. It’s reasonably safe, even for a political blogger, to predict that the temperatures will grow quite chilly here in Alberta during January and February 2011, and again in the next fall and winter.

If electricity prices spike during one of those cold periods, as also seems possible, surely Stelmach will pay a political price if he calls an election as he insists he will in March 2012 — especially if some poor senior has frozen to death in her modest Edmonton bungalow the winter before.

Not that a real Conservative — or a real Wildroser, for that matter — would truly care. This is just the sort of thing that has to happen in a globalized economy, they would think in their more private moments. But such events have political consequences in the real world, surely even here in Alberta.

In other words, Ed Stelmach must be nuts to do this now! That’s what the proverbial person in the street seems to think, and it’s a good bet that everyone who is anything in Alberta politics is wondering the same thing too.

But just remember, Premier Stelmach has already concluded that he’s right and the rest of us are the ones who are nuts — and he figures he’s got the numbers to prove it.

The scary thing, in this crazy province, is that he could just be right!

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...