|Now that Preston Manning has bowed out, the race to replace Premier Ralph Klein promises to be a humdrum affair. As an outsider, Manning would have been able to play the Lone Ranger role he would have been the only candidate that could call the Klein gang to account for its miserable mistakes, the only candidate that was not associated with that regime.
As it stands now, all the candidates have had a hand in the last listless, embarrassing years of the Klein government. Jim Dinning may want us to believe that he has reinvented himself, that he has taken a cold shower and washed away the grime of the Klein years. But it was Dinning who spearheaded utility deregulation and then took a cushy job with TransAlta. And Dinning has long pushed for health care privatization à la Ralph, particularly when he chaired the board of the Calgary Health Region. He also happens to have ties to both long-term care and health insurance companies.
Whoever wins will be the next premier of Alberta. How does Premier Jim Dinning sound? Or Premier Ted Morton? Or Premier Lyle Oberg? But of course, winning the leadership is just the preliminary bout. The next provincial election will be the real test. Can the Conservatives win another election? Or do the Liberals, New Democrats and Greens have enough support to tip the balance the other way? Will the Ralph vacuum create a serious disturbance that somehow changes the political landscape?
The Liberals are the only party that has a reasonable chance of upsetting the applecart. They already have 16 seats, and while most of them are in Edmonton, they have established a solid beachhead in Calgary. Liberal MLAs Harry Chase, David Swann and Dave Taylor are active and bright, and any one of them could easily manage a cabinet portfolio.
For those of you who remember Sheldon Chumir, a popular Calgary Liberal MLA who became the conscience of politics for many Calgarians, its not a stretch to suggest that Swann is now filling his shoes. Chumir died while still relatively young, but his enthusiasm and dedication to honest politics and government attracted people from all walks of life. If anyone had the potential to change the political dynamic in Calgary, it was Chumir.
Of course, the word "Liberal" doesnt exactly conjure up warm and fuzzy feelings as far as most Calgarians are concerned. But if the three current Calgary Liberal MLAs could get elected when Ralph was still leader, when he could still pull in votes for his no-name MLAs, perhaps even more Liberals will get elected when hes gone.
The real challenge for the Liberals is to create a strong Calgary presence, as Ralph and Peter Lougheed did for the Conservatives. But their leader, Kevin Taft, is from Edmonton and that will always remain a problem for Calgarians who see their city as the real capital of Alberta. Nevertheless, Taft is gaining recognition here. One highly qualified, independent political observer told me that while he lunched with Taft in Calgary recently, all kinds of people came over to say hello.
"He had that glow of power about him that comes from success," my acquaintance said. "I hadnt seen that before."
Its an even tougher uphill slog for the New Democrats in Calgary. Not that we have never elected NDs Ald. Bob Hawkesworth was once an ND MLA, as was Barry Pashak. But if the Liberals are viewed as the party that swoops down from Edmonton once in awhile, the NDs are seen as completely tied to Edmonton and its union base. Calgary is not a union town, for reasons that it would take too long to explain in this column. But there are a significant number of Calgarians, especially in the inner city, who like the ND approach to education, health care, social services and affordable housing. Trouble is, the ND approach on these issues isnt that different from the Liberal approach, and so the two parties are left to scrabble for the same pool of voters. Its also common for both parties to approach the same names to run as candidates. Throw some Greens into the mix, who also garner significant support in the inner city, and the opposition vote becomes so divided it would be easy for any Conservative candidate to waltz right up the middle.
Its going to be an interesting year. As Dinning campaigns for the leadership, he invokes a return to the Lougheed era, when government was more managerial, actually set about making plans for the future, and saw Alberta not as merely a rich fiefdom but a province with responsibilities to the rest of the country. But Taft is also of that era, and was in fact a dedicated Lougheed Conservative before he became so disgusted with the antics of the Klein government that he felt forced to speak out. No question the Lougheed legacy will hover over the next provincial election campaign like the ghost of Christmas past.
But lets not forget when Lougheeds Conservatives came to power in 1971 after 36 years of Social Credit rule, no one was more surprised than Lougheed. To that point he had only a small band of MLAs, fewer than the Liberals have now. Many voters thought they were voting for a stronger opposition, a party that would stand up more forcefully to the Socreds. But in the end, they ushered in a new government and a new political dynasty.