Alberta's Ed Stelmach Up to the Job?

The ALBERTA Tories have won 10 elections since 1971 and, on March 3, Ed Stelmach, one of the most uncomfortable, least confidence-inspiring Canadian politicians in recent memory, seems certain to win an 11th.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2008

The ALBERTA Tories have won 10 elections since 1971 and, on March 3, Ed Stelmach, one of the most uncomfortable, least confidence-inspiring Canadian politicians in recent memory, seems certain to win an 11th.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 3, 2008

Alberta's Ed Stelmach Up to the Job?

The ALBERTA Tories have won 10 elections since 1971 and, on March 3, Ed Stelmach, one of the most uncomfortable, least confidence-inspiring Canadian politicians in recent memory, seems certain to win an 11th. If a talent like Stelmach can win Alberta, some ask, then what Tory could ever lose? Yet, even as he's laughed off as a bumbler, a yokel from far-off, northern Vegreville, Stelmach has never lost an election in over 20 years in local and provincial government. "People whisper in my ear," Stelmach told Maclean's in an interview this week, "and say, 'Ed, please don't change. We like your honesty, we like your integrity and, most of all, you're a very modest individual.' "

Still, some 14 months after landing the job, and two weeks into a campaign for his first mandate, it's hard to tell why Stelmach, who feels about a husting microphone the way the rest of us feel about a dentist's drill, even wants to be premier. "There's no vision, and because of that, you get no ballot question," says one Tory, in reference to the defining issue on which voters make up their minds. "So the ballot question gets made up on its own by the public. And the ballot question is turning into - 'Do we want these guys to hang around or not?' That's a very dangerous ballot question."

Many Albertans still greet the question of how long is too long - 37 years of Tory rule? 41? - with puzzlement. "The Conservatives have a good track record," says Alan Poirier, managing editor of the Medicine Hat News. "This could probably go on for another 30 years." Alberta, say the jaded, is a province of Kool-Aid drinkers, the PCs so entrenched they're immovable. Others - fearful Tories, hopeful Liberals - aren't sure. Anger over a mismanaged energy boom, over cities asphyxiated by their own growth, over Stelmach's sloppily revamped royalties scheme, may conspire with massive migration from less staunchly Tory provinces - "As far as I'm concerned, they can all go back home," one PC supporter said of her new liberal neighbours - to reduce the Tories to a minority.

Stelmach, meanwhile, is thought to be too nebbishy or too little known to halt the erosion. "People want to get to know who he is," says Hank Mottl, a campaign manager for an Edmonton PC candidate - as if 14 months of his premiership weren't enough. But Stelmach is too often dismissed as a Conservative compromise, the third choice between slick, big-business Jim Dinning, Calgary's man, and the populist, right-wing university prof Ted Morton, the two chief contenders in the leadership race that Stelmach came up the middle to win an upset victory. "I sat across from Ed Stelmach for five or six years," says Alberta Liberal leader Kevin Taft. "The word on him was, he was a pretty good administrator but a very weak public performer." He adds: "If you'd told me six months before - even six weeks before - he was going to win, I would have been pretty skeptical."

The swiftness with which opponents tend to dismiss Stelmach has become his greatest asset. During a stop in Edmonton last week, an environmental activist who confronted him on his emissions plan, which sets targets for far-off 2050 - "We need reductions now," the activist said - was shocked when Stelmach lashed back, cowing the young man. "You had your turn," Stelmach countered. "You know what? I'll tell you what - I'm for good things for Albertans ... Not for radical change." So effective was the premier that some reporters had to stifle skepticism the kid was a plant. "Mr. Stelmach has done a reasonable job of exceeding expectations so far - and if you folks continue to underestimate him, he may continue to," University of Lethbridge political scientist Geoffrey Hale pointedly told a reporter.

"That's been my style of campaigning since I was first elected," Stelmach himself told Maclean's. "Yup," he concluded. "I'm watching this very carefully because, again, just like in the leadership, there are comments made by media people. Although they're criticizing me, in many cases, they're actually helping me." How's that? "Oh," says Stelmach, chuckling. "After the campaign - because I don't want to give this secret away - after the campaign, I promise, we're going to sit down and have a chat." It almost sounds like guile, doesn't it? "There is a large pool of public sympathy for people who are trying to do the right thing and get screwed in the press," says Ron Glen, a former executive assistant who's now Stelmach's chief of staff. "It also just keeps putting steel in his backbone."

Much of the analysis of his past puts a tin ear to the tale Stelmach spun in the Alberta hinterlands in the fall of 2006, in the run-up to the leadership convention. While skilfully exploiting the anxieties of northern Albertans, "the anti-Calgary, anti-southern Alberta, anti-oil, anti-establishment stuff that the Dinning forces, I think, were everything about," as one Calgary Tory puts it, Stelmach managed to make a potent symbol of himself - of the awkward Ukrainian farm boy, Woodward's hardware clerk and carpet salesman who became a provincial cabinet minister and was vying with profs and corporate businessmen for Alberta's top job.

His is a story so archetypically western Canadian that if it weren't true you'd think it was parody. Stelmach's grandparents arrived in 1898 bound for Saskatchewan, but saw no trees on the Prairie wasteland, a sign, as they saw it, of poor soil. So they stayed on the train, disembarking in Alberta and walking 100 km before choosing a plot of land northeast of Edmonton. Ed was born on May 11, 1951, the youngest of five. "Dad was born in 1903," Stelmach told a campaign gathering east of Calgary recently. "You're probably wondering," he added, clearing his throat, "why am I so young? It was a poor band that played that night. Mom and dad came home early."

Deeply religious - he is Alberta's first Catholic premier - the family attended the church in nearby Krakow that his grandparents helped build. As a boy he spoke only Ukrainian. "We'd get a licking if we spoke English," recalls 56-year-old Dennis Scraba, who grew up with Stelmach, of his own Ukrainian upbringing. "We weren't allowed to speak English because of respect for our grandparents." Stelmach's lack of English - which many say accounts for his halting public speaking today - persisted even as he arrived at school. Within the first week of Grade 1, he'd fallen off a playground slide, breaking his legs and being laid up for months in a rural hospital run by the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, who taught him English.

In high school he worked part time for Fuller Brush selling odds and ends to farmers' wives from his father's one-tonne truck, a load of floor polish by his feet, oven cleaner rocking on the passenger seat beside him. Later, seeking escape from the homestead, he entered pre-law at the University of Alberta, only to be pulled back when his brother's death nearly forced the sale of the family farm. Rather than finish his schooling, Stelmach and his wife Marie (they'd met at a wedding, she says - "he was a fantastic dancer, waltzes, polkas, foxtrot, you name it") worked the farm, keeping it in the family. Stelmach first ran for county councillor in 1986. "My dad was fairly old at that time," he says. "I forgot to tell him I was running. So he's reading the paper and he kind of looks up at me and he says, 'You're running for a position on council? Whatever you do, don't ruin the family name.' "

He is nothing if not a country politician. Before a crowd, particularly a Calgary crowd, he turns to stone. It's not just that he speaks in boilerplate - it's as though the boilerplate had arrived in pieces and then been badly assembled in his mouth, with protruding clauses, missing articles and prepositions upside down. But within a crowd - shocking for anyone who's only ever seen him on TV - he is as hail-fellow-well-met as any politician. You betcha. Stelmach takes a hand for shaking as if it's the most pressing thing in the world, squeezes elbows, winks and brushes his hand down arms, fixing his gaze on a face and speaking in a whisper designed to make an interlocutor feel he has the premier's exclusive attention.

But he's made the mistakes of a rube, too. Just weeks after the PC leadership race, for example, Stelmach's Tories announced two fundraising events that would have given $5,000 donors elite, semi-private meetings with the premier and senior ministers; the events were dropped after the opposition pounced on them as a sign Stelmach favoured "secret, cynical government," to quote Taft. Six months later, the Energy and Utilities Board, Alberta's energy regulator, admitted to hiring private investigators to spy on landowners opposed to a power line. Stelmach initially defended the move, arguing the protestors had threatened violence.

Such fumblings might have toppled a government in a province where the law of gravity has yet to be repealed. But Stelmach's approval ratings merely dipped; the most recent polls suggest he will still win a majority. The premier is running less against a rival than against the notion, common even among Conservatives, that he's not up to the job. "He is running against expectations," says David Taras, a University of Calgary political scientist, "and those expectations translate into a number - and that number is roughly 50 seats. If the party gets 47 seats, 48 seats, it would be a psychological tipping point."

Winning seats means getting PC voters to the polls March 3 - to point out the crushingly obvious - yet Stelmach has put forward very little to capture the imaginations of voters. Pledges to phase out health care premiums over four years, to cap the education portion of seniors' property taxes for the next five, or to provide $40 million in funding to build a new science museum for kids fire up nobody's rocket ship. The issue here, again, is a lack of overarching theme - of vision. In a 10-minute chat with Maclean's this week, Stelmach used the word "focus" four times to refer to three separate issues. "Families are the foundations of communities and communities build a strong province, and that's why we're focusing on families," he said. "What we've done in the last 14 months is to focus on quality of life for all Albertans - that means the most vulnerable, that's also seniors, students," he added later. Later still: "Good times bring about rising costs for everyone, and that's what we're focusing on." One could, to be sure, draw all these foci together to make a compelling case for why Stelmach, arguably as sincere and well-meaning a man as any in Canadian politics today, deserves to win a mandate next month. But that is Stelmach's job - voters should not be expected to thread his ideas together.

Whatever the outcome next month, the election will not be without leadership casualties. A weak majority will mean a painful leadership review for Stelmach. Should Taft fail to get the urban sweep his Liberals feel so keenly within reach, then he too is in trouble. But in Stelmach's case, running against expectations is just his kind of race.

Maclean's March 3, 2008