Alberta Conservative leadership frontrunner Gary Mar

One of the Alberta Progressive Conservatives’ key talking points is that every few years since the sainted Peter Lougheed retired in 1985, the party “reinvents” itself through the selection of a new leader certain to be beloved by the public.

This tale has been repeated enough times that it seems to have been accepted by everyone in Alberta, and certainly in the Alberta media, as gospel.

It is, of course, mostly baloney.

Leastways, if the Alberta PCs really want to reinvent themselves in order to get a new lease on life with Alberta voters, they have two good choices left in the leadership contest now running through its final days: Alison Redford and Doug Horner.

Redford is brainy and tough. Tough enough that when she deals with underperforming staff, it’s said, to almost make it worth living the short life of a fly to perch on the wall of the cabinet room after she became premier. The international human rights lawyer and former justice minister has certainly been bold about talking back to the premier when he’s made foolish statements about teachers. She was also prepared to defend policies like the restorative justice program when the government was about to make dumb cuts. Her commitment to public health care seems genuine. And her “high risk” campaign has been paying dividends.

Horner is smart and visionary. He has the best narrative among the three candidates of how to position an oil rich Alberta for a successful future in an era of both high technology and petrochemical shortages. He’s a sincere believer in the value and power of education. The former deputy premier may not be an academic overachiever like Redford, but politics runs in his blood and he seems like a more sure-footed version of the thoroughly decent Premier Ed Stelmach. This should be a compliment, but in the topsy-turvy world of Alberta politics will probably doom him.

Either one would be an excellent choice. Either would truly represent a genuine reinvention of the Conservative Party.

Then there’s Gary Mar. Mar is smart and …

Well, who knows what else Gary is? He’s said precious little during this leadership campaign that indicates what he really thinks, or what really motivates him. There was that vague salute toward the so-called Third Way attack on public health care. And there is ritual obeisance to the power of the Old Boys Club that ran the government of premier Ralph Klein, under whom he served as minister of health, education and several other portfolios.

The Third Way, of course, was Klein’s failed attempt to bring U.S.-style private health care to Alberta — foiled by the overwhelmingly hostile reaction of the public. One of Mar’s chief backers in the current contest, Ron Liepert, tried much the same thing when he was Stelmach’s health minister and nearly got run out of town before the premier moved him to a portfolio where he could do less harm. (Liepert also almost started an open war with Alberta’s teachers in a previous incarnation as education minister, but never mind that just now.)

It seems likely that Mar will try something similar again — renamed, of course, but hardly reinvented. He’ll probably call it Healthcare 3.5 or something suitably leading edge and digital.

Even Mar’s general election platform released yesterday — billed an intensive plan for his first 120 days — is long on promises and short on explanations. It promises fiscal discipline and restored education funding, plus “steps” to make health care and education stronger. The plan suggests, at least, that Mar won’t call a fall election — offering new hope to the opposition parties.

Mar is also backed by a long list of more than 30 Conservative MLAs, including the ultra-conservatives skidded from the leadership race on Sept. 17. Whatever else he is, after all, he is the anointed candidate of the Tory Old Boys, and that means MLAs with cabinet aspirations now figure they’d better scramble on board. Who can know what motivated ex-candidate Rick Orman, who is old, rich already and not an MLA.

Mar is also — as has been repeatedly noted as if this were a point in his favour — the preferred candidate of the catastrophic Klein. This has likely been the case for more than a decade, but only now after a comfortable spell as Alberta’s well-paid “envoy” in Washington have the planets come into alignment for Klein and Mar to see this dream become reality.

Given all this, in addition to Healthcare 3.5 and Liepert’s dream of high-cost private seniors’ care, which we already know about, we have to wonder what else Mar might find if he roots around long enough in his mentor’s bag of tricks, which alert readers will recall contained such treats as:

–    Delisting additional health services
–    Exploding public hospitals, or selling them for a song to friends of the government
–    Driving health care professionals to other provinces and countries, leaving lingering shortages of epic proportions
–    “Deregulating” monopoly utility companies
–    Cutting education funding and imposing kindergarten fees
–    Introducing regional planning chaos
–    Encouraging streets full of dusty robbery-magnet private liquor stores mostly run by Tory insiders
–    Opening the door to biker-run privatized registries
–    Rolling back the pay of public employees
–    Introducing a Republican flat tax that lets the middle-class pay the freight
–    And slapping user fees on everything to make Alberta, despite the propaganda, a high-tax jurisdiction

Did I miss anything else from the Klein years? Oh, probably.

Well, maybe this is all wrong. Mr. Mar could represent something new. But based on what little information we have, or are likely to get, that seems unlikely.

So, are the Alberta Progressive Conservatives about to reinvent themselves?

Fat chance!

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...