Ed Stelmach: The forgotten years

Leader was an ‘original soldier’ in Klein’s budget-slashing revolution

In October 2005, a Calgary Herald columnist wrote a profile on Ed Stelmach — an earnest, unassuming rural cabinet minister who’d been eyeing up the leadership of the Progressive Conservative party. Tom Olsen described a farmer from Andrew, Alberta, who in 1993 supported then-premier Ralph Klein’s idea that “the state should be one of society’s minor players.” Inspired by Klein, the rookie MLA “signed on as an original soldier in what was known as the Klein Revolution, and now wants to lead the evolution of the revolution.”

Fast forward two and a half years. These days, neither Stelmach nor Olsen mention Klein very often. (Olsen is now Stelmach’s press secretary; he jumped to the premier’s office last January mere days after filing his last column at the Herald.) The cuts of the ’90s alienated many Albertans, and Klein left Alberta with a massive infrastructure deficit and his now-infamous admission that his government had no plan to deal with the province’s growth. Klein’s “no plan” admission continues to haunt Stelmach this election campaign.

Stelmach, who was in Klein’s caucus for 13 years, now portrays himself as a new leader with fresh ideas — an alternative to the Klein reign. The Conservatives even say another Stelmach premiership would be a “change” for the province. Stelmach, however, was an integral part of Klein’s team — not just as a backbench MLA, but as a cabinet minister for nine years. University of Lethbridge political scientist Peter McCormick says that’s something many Albertans don’t remember. “If they did, he’d get hit a lot harder on all this infrastructure stuff,” says McCormick. “He was the minister responsible for infrastructure for several years…. And now he’s saying, ‘Hey, we need a plan to take care of infrastructure.’ Well, yeah — who was in charge of that, Ed? Whose watch was that?”

A politician’s record is usually brought into public view and discussed, debated and often criticized in election campaigns. Yet in this campaign, there’s been very little talk about Stelmach’s pre-leadership years. Because he kept such a low profile, few remember his role in Klein’s government. “If we were dealing today with a Lyle Oberg or a Jim Dinning — both of who were very outspoken when they were in government, and held very high-profile positions — [you could] say, ‘Look, the decisions that this government’s made — you’re directly implicated in [them] and here’s your statements supporting them,’” says Ricardo Acuña, executive director of the Parkland Institute. “With Ed Stelmach, that’s a little harder.”

THE DEEP SIX YEARS

In the weeks preceding the 2008 election campaign, Stelmach’s government went on a wild spending spree, announcing more than $1.2 billion for schools, non-profits and care centres. Opposition parties and government watchdogs like the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF) harshly criticized Stelmach for his barrage of pre-election announcements. “Politicians of all stripes tend to pork-barrel right before an election, but this dollar amount is unprecedented in Alberta,” said CTF-Alberta director Scott Hennig at the time.

However, when Stelmach bumped an NDP incumbent from Vegreville-Viking in 1993, he approached government spending very differently. He was one of the “Deep Six” — an irreverent band of rookie Tory backbenchers who wore goofy teal-coloured bowties, mocked legislative seriousness, and pushed for hard-line fiscal conservatism in their party. The Deep Six — so named because of their physical distance from Klein and his cabinet in the legislature — loudly derided big spenders in all parties as Klein laid out his agenda to deeply cut the provincial budget. “Ed was cheering it on,” says Liberal leader Kevin Taft. “If anything, he wanted the cuts deeper and faster, and we’ve been really picking up the pieces ever since.”

Stelmach’s fiscal and social conservatism was quickly evident in the legislature. He thumped loudly on his desk when Red Deer Tory MLA Victor Doerksen suggested the government should axe the Advisory Council on Women’s Issues so the money could be put towards the debt. “[Stelmach’s] seatmate, Calgary-Cross MLA Yvonne Fritz, threw a punch at him, but missed,” reported the Edmonton Journal afterwards. In February 1995, Stelmach was one of 12 Tory MLAs who voted against a successful Liberal motion to recognize Freedom to Read Week in the province.

The Conservatives continued their cuts through the mid-90s. The government closed hospitals and schools, and laid off teachers and nurses. The Conservatives also cut welfare and slashed living allowances for people with disabilities. In the midst of these cuts, Klein made Stelmach the caucus deputy whip, and in 1995, Stelmach became caucus whip. (The whip oversees party discipline and keeps other MLAs in line.) During this time, Stelmach solidified his reputation as a frugal MLA: he routinely incurred lower personal expenses than most of his colleagues and declined to drive a government vehicle.

In April 1996, Stelmach got tangled in a Tory controversy shortly before a byelection in a riding north of Edmonton. (Liberal MLA Nick Taylor had retired from the Redwater riding because he’d been appointed as a federal senator.) Several days before the byelection was called, Stelmach, then-Tory MLA Peter Trynchy and the Conservative candidate in the riding presented a $125,000 government cheque to a local seniors centre. The group had reportedly applied for the government money more than two years prior. A local weekly newspaper snapped a photo of Stelmach and the other two Tories handing over the cheque, and once opposition parties got their hands on the photo, they accused the Conservatives of pork-barrel politics and vote-buying in the riding.

In the legislature, Stelmach said the seniors centre had approached him about their application because it stalled after Taylor was appointed to the Senate. “Speaking about patronage, the only reason that the seniors were unable to obtain the grant when they first applied was because of patronage,” said Stelmach. “The MLA for the constituency was appointed senator, and that left the seniors without anybody to discuss the proposed project.” Klein also maintained the timing of the announcement had nothing to do with the byelection. After more opposition hounding, however, Klein eventually admitted the cheque shouldn’t have been presented right before the byelection. “It was a mistake,” said Klein. “It won't happen again.” The Conservatives lost the byelection to the Liberals by 98 votes.

THE AGRICULTURE YEARS

Stelmach has kept an incredibly low profile for most of his political life. Unlike some MLAs, he’s never pined for media attention — and as a result, he’s hardly received any. (That’s no exaggeration: Stelmach’s name appeared in Edmonton Journal headlines only four times during his first decade in office. His name showed up only once in a Calgary Herald headline during the same time period.) “He never really took on anything that brought him into public notice,” says Mark Lisac, who covered the legislature for the Journal in the ’90s. “He never did anything that was flashy or controversial in any way.”

Instead, he quietly developed a reputation for being a “solid and competent” minister, says McCormick. “There were ministers that one joked about, there were ministers that really annoyed people — he never made any of those lists,” McCormick says. “[He] didn’t let the department down when he had to speak up for them in public or in a committee.”

After the March 1997 election (the Tories won 63 of 83 seats), Klein made Stelmach his minister of agriculture — clearly a suitable portfolio for Stelmach, a farmer with extensive knowledge and experience in the field. Under Stelmach’s leadership, the agriculture department aggressively promoted industrial-scale livestock projects in Alberta. However, there were few rules in place to regulate these operations, and concerns about water contamination quickly piled up as farm development intensified. At first, Stelmach resisted opposition calls to regulate factory farms, saying he didn’t want to impose a “cookie-cutter solution” on all areas of the province. Instead, he encouraged municipalities and counties to make their own bylaws.

However, Stelmach was forced to abandon this position after being faced with mounting public pressure and evidence from his own department that factory farms were polluting water. He called for a public debate on ways to regulate intensive livestock operations. (In 2002, the province took regulatory authority of the industry from municipalities and brought in provincewide standards.)

As agriculture minister, Stelmach also vocally supported the Alberta government’s fight against the Canadian Wheat Board. “It’s the farmers’ grain,” Stelmach told the Journal in September 1997. “Not the provincial or federal government’s.”

Meanwhile, the Tory budget cuts forced the closure of three hospitals in Calgary.

THE INFRASTRUCTURE YEARS

In 1999, Klein gave Stelmach a new cabinet post: infrastructure. Again, he went about his business quietly, for the most part staying below the media radar. (One exception: in a 1999 meeting with a newspaper editorial board, he suggested alternating the fast and slow lanes on highways to cut down on maintenance costs since the slow lanes erode faster. A spokesperson later said he was just tossing around ideas.) In his infrastructure post, Stelmach drew up stricter rules on photo radar so it would be used to prevent collisions, and not just to generate revenue for police. He also boosted fines for traffic violations. (For example, the fine for failing to stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk jumped to $500 from $60.) When some Albertans complained about the hikes, Stelmach gave the following advice: “Obey the law and you don’t pay.” Stelmach has always felt strongly about traffic safety, having lost two relatives to collisions on rural roads.

At a recent campaign stop in Calgary, Fast Forward asked Stelmach to identify his biggest accomplishments during his cabinet years. “When I first started in infrastructure, we would get a large amount of money in the beginning of the year, and as other ministries were overspending, they’d always come at the end of the year to infrastructure and pull funds out of our department,” Stelmach says. “So we changed the financial mechanism in such a way as to set aside a capital fund.” The new fund was frozen, he says, and designated specifically for capital projects. “That, to me, was the biggest accomplishment which allowed us to then take on the huge task of building the infrastructure that Albertans deserve.”

However, critics say Stelmach’s years as infrastructure minister were notable not for what he did, but what he didn’t do. “As minister of infrastructure, he let this $7 billion infrastructure deficit be built by the government,” says Acuña. “[He] didn’t present any kind of long-term plan for infrastructure in the province.” McCormick says if Stelmach had been in the media more at the time, his role in the current infrastructure shortfall would be more of an election issue now. “We’d remember it, and we’d pull the clips out, and we’d play them on the news and laugh,” says McCormick. “But he was never that style. In a way, he’s getting away with a bit — except that we all know it was so much a one-man show…. [As a Klein cabinet minister], you got about as much space as [Klein] gave you to play with.”

Lisac, who currently writes a newsletter on Alberta politics, says “not a thing” stands out to him about Stelmach’s years in cabinet. “He just avoids any kind of prominence or any kind of risk-taking,” he says, recalling when Stelmach was infrastructure minister. “That was a period of time when Alberta was starting to fall behind. I don’t recall a single word from him saying that maybe it was time to catch up on some of these jobs.”

THE TRANSPORTATION YEARS

In 2001, Klein moved Stelmach to the transportation portfolio — a position he held until 2004. He continued to focus on traffic safety, introducing a graduated licensing system for new drivers, and, in 2004, launching a provincial review of Alberta traffic safety programs.

With both Calgary and Edmonton calling for ring roads around their cities, Stelmach also started exploring and advocating for P3s — public-private partnerships — to build the expensive projects, since the province didn’t have the money. “It would be something like mortgaging the infrastructure,” Stelmach told the Journal in 2002 — a change from “the previous way of building and paying for it in the same year.” Numerous studies and reports show P3s often end up costing taxpayers more than when governments simply borrow money, but Stelmach is still pursuing P3s not just for roads, but schools as well. In fact, some of the schools pulled from Stelmach’s pre-election goodie bag will be P3s. “[Stelmach] still defends P3s for infrastructure as saving taxpayers’ money, but he never once has provided a shred of evidence… to show that that’s the case,” says Acuña.

THE DEEP SIX IS DEAD

Finally, after the 2004 election (another solid Tory majority), Klein made Stelmach minister of International and Intergovernmental Relations — the last portfolio Stelmach would hold under the former premier. Stelmach headed the department when the province hosted the Queen and celebrated Alberta’s centennial. (Stelmach mentioned these events when Fast Forward asked him about his accomplishments in cabinet.)

He was also in charge when the government established its controversial Washington office, where an Alberta envoy earns a $200,000-plus salary. Stelmach signed the contract for the first Washington envoy, fellow Deep Sixer Murray Smith, who got the salary plus a $105,000 departure bonus even though he resigned from the job five months before his three-year term ended. (Longtime Klein cabinet minister Gary Mar was appointed to replace him last September.)

After Smith’s appointment, opposition parties and columnists decried the Washington office as a patronage position. Even Olsen, who now works for Stelmach, described Smith’s appointment as a “grip, grin and gravy tour” in a 2005 column.

The Deep Six, Olsen noted, had “slowly started to resemble the fat cats they had abhorred early in their political careers.” Smith was living the high life in Washington, former environment minister Lorne Taylor wanted to reinstate the MLA pensions that were axed in the ’90s, and two Deep Sixers — Stelmach and Lyle Oberg — were now in the running for the province’s top job. “The Deep Six is well and truly dead,” wrote Olsen.

In March 2006, Stelmach resigned his cabinet post to enter the leadership race, and in doing so, ended his nine years in Klein’s cabinet. Stelmach’s role during the previous decade wouldn’t stick in the public memory; when he won the leadership race in December, many Albertans still didn’t know who he was. “Ed who?” was the question on many local lips. “He’s not, in the public eye, directly associated with the [Klein] government,” Acuña says. “It’s unfortunate…. The reality is that he was part of the Klein government, he did have a seat in that caucus and he did have a seat in that cabinet — and therefore the decisions of that government were partly his.”



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