Stelmach did the unthinkable – he lost the countryside


It was an announcement that caught Albertans by surprise, but upon reflection it was probably expected sooner or later. The urban media speculated on the alleged palace revolt that led to Premier Ed Stelmach’s sudden “intend to resign” announcement. Be that as it may, there is always more to the story. What those observers missed was the real political sin that goes to the heart of the PC party: the premier lost the rural and small town vote.

The real Alberta outside of Calgary and Edmonton is rather important to the PC party as it supplies the unshakable core of their elected MLAs. Supporters consider it ludicrous that any rural voter would even think about voting anything but PC. That was until Ed Stelmach became premier – he did the politically impossible – he drove loyal PC rural voters to another party. Okay – it was another conservative party – but in the countryside that’s big time radical change.

The fall in PC support was spectacular according to the polls; from 80 per cent support at the last election, to 30 per cent in less than two years with the Wildrose Alliance holding the lead at 34 per cent outside of the two big cities. Government MLAs could see that their political butts were going to be kicked in the next election, but the premier seemed oblivious to the gathering storm.

One could presume that since our premier is a farmer from rural Alberta, he would have a good handle on the political pulse of rural voters. But it seems instead of addressing the issues that were causing the free-fall in PC support, he chose to blame the messenger by firing his hapless Minister of Agriculture, George Groeneveld. He was replaced with a new messenger, namely Jack Hayden, a veteran astute rural politician. The problem for the new minister was that the government message stayed the same. As expected, the opposition had a heyday hammering the political irritants with amazing results.

So what did the premier do to annoy so many rural voters? It boils down to taking them for granted. That’s always a political mistake, but then can you blame the government? Rural voters have been voting en masse for the PC party for the past 40 years. They probably assumed they could do what they wanted in rural Alberta without the slightest political ramification – that was seemingly true until the arrival of the Wildrose Alliance.

The first hit the premier took at rural Alberta was his attempt to adjust the oil and gas royalty structure. His motivation for bringing energy companies to heel is well understood (and appreciated) by many land owners. There is a well established love/hate (even deadly) relationship between rural land owners and the energy industry in this province. The two groups have fought over access and nuisance issues for the past 100 years.

On the other hand the energy industry provides thousands of jobs to rural people (including land owners) and economic activity in small towns. When the royalty scheme backfired, it blew many of those jobs out of the water across rural Alberta. That’s not exactly the thanks loyal PC voters in the countryside expected from a premier who they voted in to look after their economic interests. What annoyed the folks out there was that the premier and his MLAs showed almost no concern for the fate of their captive voters.

The other deadly political issue had to do with the democratic process, or the lack thereof. The PC government passed legislation that would severely affect land owners’ property rights. If there is one surefire way to instigate farmers and ranchers into open rebellion, it’s to threaten the very property they own, live on and make their living from. It’s absolutely visceral and the Wildrose Alliance has used it as a successful lightening rod to rally voters to their side; they promise to rescind the offending legislation.

The response to the uproar from the premier was to say ‘trust us’, we will look at it again. Rural voters know instinctively what that bit of political duplicity means and it only confirmed their suspicions of the premier. Another anti-democratic action was the government’s arbitrary canceling of the cattle, sheep, potato and hog check-off programs. Many cattle producers believed the premier had a hand in that decision as a result of his being influenced by powerful politically-connected cattle feedlot operators. What made that decision look even worse was that the dairy and poultry check-off programs were left untouched, thanks to the even more powerful supply-management political lobby.

It all added up to bad optics for the premier and his party, and after 40 years even bedrock PC rural voters seem ready for a change in political parties. The irony with the premier’s resignation is that a new leader may not make that much difference. If a new PC leader intends to stick to the same policies that has so enraged rural voters, the political outcome may be the same. However, one should never write-off the PC party. The last time the PC government was in political trouble was when Don Getty was a one-term Premier. He resigned and Ralph Klein took over, and the rest is history.