Friday, September 30, 2011

The 13th Premier of Alberta

Nation, in the middle of all the hubbub and fanfare and spin that is going on as PC Party members head to their local polling stations to elect a new leader of their private club and, by extension and parliamentary precedent, a new Premier of Alberta, I want to take a moment to thank Premier Edward Michael Stelmach for his years of service to his community, his province and its people.

I'm not going to write a biography of the man. I'm not going to eulogize him - he's beginning a well-earned retirement, not dying.

But I *am* going to extend my sincere thanks.

Since 1986, Ed Stelmach has woken up every morning to serve others. To reprise a phrase that will force a smile onto the face of anyone who was at the PC AGM in Calgary last year, "it's what gets him up in the morning". For 25 years - a quarter of a century - Ed has committed his time and energy to making things better for other people.

He wasn't volunteering all those hours. He was being paid to do a job - first as a member and later reeve of the County of Lamont's council, and then as an MLA, cabinet member and later Premier. I'm not nominating him for sainthood. The job of a politician, though, is demanding no matter WHAT the pay scale. I've heard it suggested, by sitting officials, that the rate of divorce among elected politicians is near 75%. The job that Ed was doing is hard on ANY family - and he would be the first to tell you that. This is why, more than any other politician in recent Alberta memory, when the PC's celebrate an accomplishment or milestone in Ed Stelmach's career, they always - at Ed's insistence - put Marie on that same pedestal. Ed and Marie are a package deal. His wins are THEIR wins. His losses are shared as well. That's what love is. And his devotion to his wife, his children, and to his grandchildren, are the stuff of legend.

Ed is one of the nicest people I've ever met. Not just in politics - anywhere. He's just a decent and down-to-earth guy. Funny, in a self-deprecating way. Quick with a joke or a witty retort. This is the man Ed Stelmach is, behind closed doors where he's out of the spotlight. They say that "character is the person you are when nobody is looking". If that's the case, then Ed Stelmach has a stellar character. It was long a source of frustration for the party hacks who get paid to worry about such things that Ed, despite his personal charm, came across on television or in the glare of the media spotlight as awkward. "If only THEY could see the man WE see..." went the refrain. But even when the editorial press decided that Ed wasn't "their guy", even when the poll results showed that Albertans were thinking the same thing, even when those within his own party were working to show Ed the door, he remained the same: A good, decent, down-to-earth man. A man with the kind of character we all wish more politicians had.

When he was first elected as an MLA at age 42, Stelmach was an unrepentant fiscal hawk. He even refused a government vehicle, as he didn't feel the expense would be justifiable. A member of the so-called "Deep Six", Ed advocated for deep cuts of wasteful spending under Premier Ralph Klein. Ed held a special place in his heart for fiscally conservative rookies for the rest of his career, as evidenced by the special attention given to MLA's like Jonathan Denis and Rob Anderson (before he crossed the floor after not being advanced into cabinet) during their first term.

Ed Stelmach was an able cabinet minister, in 3 portfolios. He wasn't flashy, but (hard as it may be to believe) "flashy" was never really Ed's style. "Flashy" doesn't get the cows into the barn. He got legislation passed. While he was Minister of Infrastructure, he made sure things were getting built, on-time and under budget. But "flashy" never came into the picture. When he decided to step up and run for the PC Leadership after Ralph announced he was stepping aside, being the first Klein cabinet minister to do so, a lot of people in Alberta responded "Ed who?".

The PC Leadership Election system works in 3 stages. It is designed in a way that the eventual winner will absolutely, positively HAVE to have over 50% of voting party members mark their ballot in favour of that eventual winner. On the first ballot, voters simply choose their preferred candidate. The ballots are then counted. If any candidate receives more than 50% of the votes, they are the leader. If not, then the top 3 finishers have some more time to keep campaigning, and another vote is held with only those 3 on the ballot. This time, members can indicate their first and second choices from among the 3-person field. If any candidate received more than 50% of the first-choice votes, they are the leader. If NOT, then the 3rd-place finisher from the 2nd ballot is dropped, and their ballots are redistributed among the remaining 2 candidates according to the stated 2nd choice of the voters (if a second choice is indicated).

In the race to replace Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach finished 3rd on the first ballot, with just under 15,000 votes. 5 other candidates were dropped off the ballot. One week later, the second ballot was held, and Stelmach increased his vote total to 51,764. He WON the second ballot (are you paying attention, lazy media-types? He WON the second ballot - FIRST PLACE), with Dinning finishing second and Morton third. None of the candidates had the required 50%, however, so Morton's voters were redistributed among Dinning and Stelmach, with Ed picking up 25,000 Morton voters to Dinning's 4,000.  Stelmach, already ahead of Dinning before the Morton votes were even redistributed, was the new Premier of Alberta.

During the leadership, one of Ed's big promises was that he would take a look at the Royalty Rates that energy companies paid to the Government for the resources they took, developed, and sold - resources that belong to the people of Alberta. Despite the expectation by many Albertans that he was, like many politicians, especially full of hot air when running for office, Stelmach actually struck a Royalty Review Panel to take a look at whether or not Albertans were getting their fair share. The panel came back with a report recommending significant increases in the royalty rates. Ed DID raise some of the rates, but nowhere near the levels or to the degree recommended by the report. One of the report's authors is now involved, ironically, with the Wildrose Party - much to their energy company donors' delights, I'm sure.

Nation, you know the rest of this story. The global economic slowdown hits. The oilsands grind to a relative halt. Stelmach's "draconian royalty rates" - lower, mind you, than those suggested by the panel - are blamed for the slowdown of energy production. Corrections and tweaks are made to the formula in an effort to strike the right balance, but they only frustrate the energy companies, who are desperate for cost-certainty. Many companies go elsewhere, like Saskatchewan, where labour is cheaper than the super-heated northern Alberta labour market. The Wildrose Alliance surges in popularity, as they trumpet slogans like "Bring Back the Alberta Advantage!" and "Send Ed a Message!". Stelmach's Deputy Premier steps aside to take an appointment as a judge, and his PC-safe Calgary riding elects Paul Hinman of the Wildrose. Alberta dips into its savings to cover program costs. The knives start to come out inside of the PC Party.

On January 25th of 2011, Ed Stelmach shocked the Alberta political world by announcing that he was going to step aside at the end of the Legislature's business that year. Many of his commitments hadn't been fully realized. Many things he would have liked to have done, remained undone. But the grind, the battle, the never-ending struggle against forces outside of his control, against political opponents both outside of his party and inside of it, had taken their toll. He was going home to Marie.

When the history books eulogize Ed Stelmach, I don't know what they're going to say. I don't know whether they'll say he was a careful planner, or a ditherer. I don't know whether they'll say he was a steady hand in rough seas, or whether he was the reason the seas were rough in the first place. History is written by the victors.

What I *do* know, is Ed Stelmach is a good man, and has been a dedicated public servant for a quarter of a century.

When his time comes - as it comes for all of us - and Ed is called to his Final Home, politicians and Albertans will line up to talk about what a great guy he was. About how dedicated he was to his province and to his family. About how his work ethic inspired them to public service. There will be compliments paid, grudging statements made by politicians who wouldn't have crossed the street if Ed was on fire and they had a bucket of water. The sort of people who don't even show up on Ed's last day in the Legislature to grit their teeth and thank him for his service.

I don't want to wait. I don't want my thanks to go to Marie and his children and grandchildren.

I want to say it now, to the man himself.

Thank-you, Ed. For everything. Even the stuff we disagreed on.

Enjoy your retirement. God knows you've earned it.

1 comment:

John Tyne (somewhere in Alberta) said...

Sorry friend, this will not wash.

Nice guy, for sure. Nicer than, say... Ralph Klein. No question.

The question is whether Stelmach deserves thanks for 5 years of uninspired, dithering (you are prescient with that term), and damaging leadership.

Damaging? Yep. Negotiating a 5-year contract with teachers and then renegging (and threatening and intimidating) and playing the "I'm the straight shooter, friend of teachers BS" is quite revolting.

Yes, a nice guy I am sure. Never had the pleasure, but I trust you on that.

But I am sickened by all the kidn words that a damaging premier is receiving. Almost as much as the I am offended by the kudos offered to Klein. (He deserves sympathy for his travails, but no special sympathy over the thousands of others who have to live the same kind of life).

Nope, Stelpmach deserves very little praise. Thanks for giving it the old college try, but I wish you had lost or else never run for the leadership. We are worse off for your most recent service.