Ed Stelmach's Win Gives Tories Mandate to Take on Ottawa

He makes an unlikely Titan, Ed Stelmach. Yet the farmer from Andrew, Alta.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 17, 2008

He makes an unlikely Titan, Ed Stelmach. Yet the farmer from Andrew, Alta.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on March 17, 2008


Ed Stelmach's Win Gives Tories Mandate to Take on Ottawa

He makes an unlikely Titan, Ed Stelmach. Yet the farmer from Andrew, Alta., who kept his herd of Angus cattle until weeks into his premiership - so surprised was he at his victory in the PROGRESSIVE CONSERVATIVE leadership race - has joined the ranks of Ralph KLEIN and Danny WILLIAMS as one of Canada's most popular political figures. Monday's landslide win for his Tories, who raked in 73 of the province's 83 ridings and reduced the opposition to almost nothing, gives Stelmach a terrific hammer on the national stage. The upshot for Canada may be a conflict over environmental policy that the feds can't ever hope to win. "There is," as University of Calgary political scientist David Taras put it, "almost an Alberta veto."

Six months ago, no one would have predicted such a trouncing. The LIBERALS, under leader Kevin Taft, appeared on the cusp of holding Edmonton and gaining seats in Calgary. Yet, like a Japanese sumo who converts his opponent's own power into his collapse, the Tories allowed the possibility of a Liberal surge to become so palpable that it galvanized traditional PC voters who might otherwise have stayed home. Though turnout on Monday, according to estimates, was an abysmal 41 per cent - lower even than the 45 per cent who voted in 2004 to give Klein his last mandate - few will quibble with the results, or the message they deliver to Canada. "The message," says U of C political scientist Lisa Young, "is the people of Alberta are intent on developing the oil sands full steam ahead. We are not concerned with the environmental effects. We are concerned with maintaining our affluence."

Indeed, Stelmach was at his most passionate when, out on the hustings, he attacked those who would limit the potential of developments around FORT MCMURRAY, the centre of a vast and still escalating oil boom. Kevin Taft's pledge to introduce "an absolute cap on greenhouse gas emissions" would, the premier maintained, cause the loss of over 300,000 jobs in Alberta - a number he could never quite substantiate, but never mind. Environmentalists who said the oil sands were harming the health of people in nearby First Nations communities, meanwhile, coaxed the chronically tongue-tied premier to near erudition - they were, he said, "obviously silk-suited environmentalists that really don't know the facts. My job is to protect this province - protect the prosperity of Alberta."

Elan MacDonald, his deputy chief of staff, said Stelmach's victory hinged on the Tory campaign's success in rescuing the environment from the Liberals, whose leader promised to wage a "war on carbon." All very well and good, said the Tories - but what about jobs? The message resonated, and Stelmach knew it. Nothing swerved him from it, even as key energy outfits, in a letter to the government leaked during the election from a consortium of industry, government and environmental groups, suggested a moratorium. The move, says the University of Alberta's Ian Urquhart, was "good politics for those signatories to present themselves to the Alberta public as deeply concerned about the ecological impact of oil sands development." More than that, he says, Alberta's oil sector is increasingly conscious of regulatory regimes in the works in the U.S. that will likely shape anew their most crucial markets. But Stelmach, whose tin ear on the environment has left him increasingly isolated, rejected the notion of government intervention, and relished the chance to link the issue with an old Alberta bugaboo. "Governments do not control the economy," he said. "The last time the economy was controlled by a government was back in the 1980s, and it was the federal Trudeau Liberals. We're not going back to those dark days."

Prime Minister Stephen Harper is, it goes without saying, no Trudeau Liberal. Yet he might have been tempted to promise green-conscious voters in Quebec and Ontario certain regulations - a federal iteration of B.C. Premier Gordon Campbell's recent carbon tax, say - that would be viewed no less darkly in Alberta than Trudeau's NATIONAL ENERGY PROGRAM. With Environment Minister John Baird set, in the coming months, to flesh out a green framework he unveiled last spring, Stelmach's message to the feds, one now endorsed by Alberta voters, is - don't go there. "The government of Alberta has a mandate to take an intransigent position on environmental issues and climate change," says Young, of the U of C. "The best Harper can hope for is to change the subject."

See also PETROLEUM INDUSTRIES.

Maclean's March 17, 2008