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Long past the best-before date: no matter how bad Alberta's Tories get, its Liberals can always do worse.

IN Alberta Liberal circles--the causes of which, like crop circles, are difficult to understand--they are calling Progressive Conservative leadership favourite Jim Dinning the "Perfect Strom." Those of you without pointy heads or grey whiskers may miss the pun and suspect a typo. But the Liberal allusion is to the hapless, post-Manning premier Harry Strom. Poor Harry, a farmer from Burdett with the agriculture portfolio, was handed the premiership by the retiring Ernest Manning in late 1968, and was cut down like a late-blooming dandelion by the sharp Calgary frost of Pierre--sorry, Peter--Lougheed in 1971. Today's Libs hope to do to the Dinning PCs what Peter's PCs did to Strom's Social Credit. Hence their hopeful allusion.

Hopeful indeed, for this is where allusion becomes illusion. The AltaLibs--we're hoping to help them rebrand with bright new monikers--were turfed from office a decade after Rutherford's resignation in the 1910 railroad scandal. Since then, they've been rendered redundant by the adaptability of the other parties. The Socreds, for example, were a collectivist, utopian and, frankly, weird alternative to the CCF in the Dirty Thirties. They tried to banish Toronto banks and printed their own funny money, but then morphed into something Tory-like in the post-war prosperity, when honest Ernest Manning (the best premier the province ever had) ruled for 25 years.


By the late 1960s, though, the hitherto irrelevant Progressive Conservatives--the AB-Libs of their day--had tapped into the "youth movement" (boomers enamoured of Peter--sorry, Pierre--Trudeau). Compared to the old Socreds, they were sexy, edgy and all those other cool things revered during the boomer ascendancy of the past four decades.

Lougheed and his youngish turks, were not as far left as Trudeau, but they did OK. Peter's policies and practices would be familiar to any modern Liberal government. They bought and provincialized Pacific Western Airlines, they grew government to vast proportions, they subsidized business, they cranked up welfare and social services, they embraced touchy-feely trends in modern education, and they created the absurd piggy bank known as the Alberta Heritage Savings Trust Fund.

Then, when world oil prices dipped and this super-sized government could no longer sustain itself, the great man donned his parachute. Before leaving the cockpit, he handed the controls to the Perfect Strom of the day, the unluckiest premier, Don Getty, who took the blame for the ensuing crash, while Lougheed moseyed off to burnish his senior-statesman schtick.

One of the few things Lougheed said that anyone actually remembers is that any political threat to the Progressive Conservatives would come from the right, not the left. That was true in 1993, when Laurence Decore's blue Liberals almost did what Liberals never do in Alberta--win an election. The Christian Decore was anti-abortion and would have been anti-gay marriage, if such an oxymoron had been contemplated back then. But his main platform was fiscal reform--debt elimination, cuts to the bureaucracy, getting government out of business's face, and all those other good things done by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and New Zealand's Labour finance minister Sir Roger Douglas.

Thus, when Ralph Klein was chosen premier in December 1992, the BlueLibs were beating them in the opinion polls, and something had to be done. Ralph jettisoned his red past as a throw-money-at-the-problem Gettyite and wielded the debt-reduction cudgel. He took everything a tad further than Decore, the clincher being the promise to eliminate MLA pensions. It worked, but only barely. In the mid-1993 election, the Tories won, but the Liberals got their highest proportion of seats since the teens, 32 to the Tories' 51.

Then Decore resigned, and the Libsters, their blue thunder commandeered, turned pink again. Under a run of ineffectual, uncharismatic leaders, they demonized the cuts being made by perennially popular Ralph and his then boyish fiscal-hawk treasurer Jim Dinning. (Jimbo had been a special friend of Ralph's great rival in the leadership race, pink and progressive Nancy Betkowski, but switched allegiance when Ralph offered him Finance--a good career move.)

In the 2004 election, under ineffectual, uncharismatic Kevin Taft, the Libbies increased their seat count from seven to the current 16. Taft, a tall, career academic with a hectoring manner and a nostalgia for the big Lougheed government, took that as an affirmation of his leadership. Actually, the Libs hadn't received any more votes than in the previous outing, but Tories, annoyed at Ralph for overstaying his welcome, stayed home in droves.

In the intervening two years, the situation hasn't improved much for the TaftLibs. The party's big debt (amassed by the princess Nancy MacBeth, nee Betkowski, during her lavish 2001 campaign as Liberal leader) has been whittled down from $1 million in 2004 to the current $670,000. This slow paydown doesn't say much about the party's popularity in a province with the strongest economy in Canadian history, where a PC leadership candidate like Mark Norris can almost immediately raise $1 million for a long shot.

Of the nine Tory leadership candidates, Dinning remains the frontrunner. With his $2-million-plus war chest and Machiavellian fixers (such as Rod Love, Hal Danchilla and Allan Hallman), it is difficult to imagine anyone else having the wherewithal to amass as many members. And, as the frontrunner, Dinning has the cachet of the man most likely to reward friends, post-coronation. This was nicely illustrated at a June photo-op, when he trotted out 27 sitting MLAs to pledge their allegiance.

Given the realpolitik, therefore, the platforms lately rolled out by all nine candidates are all but irrelevant. I'd love to be proved wrong. I'd love to see one of the candidates with more substance--Ted Morton or Lyle Oberg--orchestrate a come-from-behind victory on the second ballot. I'd even be happy with roly-poly, hail-fellow-well-met Norris, whose foibles might provide some lively copy. But this is a leadership campaign, not an election, so substantive policies and personalities are little more than window dressing. In the end, it's who can get the votes out, so I'm betting the farm on the Jimbuck.

The Lib's "Perfect Strom" crack anticipates what will happen to Dinnina after he becomes premier. The tired old Tories, like the tired old Socreds, will be led by just another member of a tired regime. And the general population will have this immense desire for something new and fresh. Dinning is 54 years old, has no fresh ideas, spouts generalities, and has a camp of greying Kleinistas.

Unfortunately for the Glibs, they are not the brave young Lougheed Tories of 1971, but rather, the same motley bleaters they've been for the last decade. Kevin Taft, 51, although a likable guy, lacks charisma, and has policies that sound like one of several Tory leadership candidates (more Heritage Fund, more infrastructure funding, more health care, more universities, more tarsands royalties ... and did we mention more Heritage Fund?)

Kev shows no sign of stepping down, for this $120,000-a-year gig is probably the best he'll ever get. The Blibs have leadership reviews following each election. The last review in January 2005 gave Kevlar a hallucinogenic 99.4 per cent approval rating, and the next review won't be until after the next election, which Jimbo says won't occur until early 2008. So any possible Flib invigorators (such as Calgary's Mayor Dave Bronconnier) will probably rot on the vine.

Perfect Strom or not, Dinning will have a free ride through the next election--barring any major dip in the economy, which would change everything. And Kevvy Taft, by stubbornly sticking around, dooms the Liberals to remaining the feckless nonentities that, for most of the past hundred years, has been their tradition.
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Title Annotation:THE COLONIES
Author:Dolphin, Ric
Publication:Western Standard
Date:Oct 23, 2006
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