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Boutilier is back and it's likely bad news for Stelmach

Heeeee's baaaaaack! Guy Boutilier is in the news again. This does not bode particularly well for Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach.

Not quite a year ago, on July 17, 2009, Stelmach booted the Fort McMurray-Wood Buffalo MLA out of the Alberta Conservative caucus for the unpardonable sin of speaking up on behalf of his constituents. Boutilier's specific crime was publicly complaining that his own government had broken a promise to build a seniors' continuing care facility in boomtown Fort McMurray.

Boutilier was sent to Coventry -- which in his case was a hastily renovated office on a low floor of the shabby Legislative Annex Building across the lawn from the Legislature in Edmonton. The huge Conservative majority ticked down a statistically insignificant one seat, to 71.

The premier's propaganda machine went into overdrive, portraying Boutilier as isolated, selfish and arrogant, an angry wingnut throwing a tantrum because he hadn't landed a cabinet post comparable to the important portfolios he had held in Ralph Klein's day. Boutilier was also described as a whiner, desperate to be forgiven and readmitted to caucus -- which the premier made clear would never happen.

Now, truth be told, Boutilier never looked that unhappy in his new digs. Indeed, to many of us he looked quite relaxed as he lived the quiet life of an independent MLA, as if a weight had been lifted from his shoulders.

Anyway, before long he had company in his rundown corner of the Annex. On Sept. 14, 2009, he was joined by once and future MLA Paul Hinman, elected for the right-wing Wildrose Alliance in a by-election in Calgary-Glenmore. Tory majority: 70.

Then, on Jan. 4, 2010, they were joined by turncoat Tories Rob Anderson from Airdrie-Chestermere and Heather Forsyth from Calgary-Fish Creek, who had crossed the floor to join the upstart party. Tory majority: 68.

Now the auguries point to Boutilier joining his office-mates from the Wildrose Alliance just in time to give the right-wing party a boost a few days before its much-anticipated policy convention two weeks from now in Red Deer.

Yesterday, the well-connected author of a subscription-only Legislative tipsheet predicted that Boutilier was about to move back into the limelight. Paul McLaughlin's Alberta Scan quoted Boutilier effusively complimenting Wildrose Alliance Leader Danielle Smith, comparing her to Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein rolled into one. (For non-Albertans, this is akin to comparing a politician, say, to a combination of John A. MacDonald and Pierre Trudeau, with elements of St. Joan of Arc tossed in.)

A local newspaper quickly followed up with a blog post that said much the same thing. It had Boutilier cutely refusing to confirm he was about to join the Alliance, but doing everything else he could to add fuel to the fire of speculation.

Of course, in politics as in the dance of the thousand veils, timing is everything. If Smith and the Alliance time things just right, they can get a nice sense of momentum as they go into their convention from Boutilier signing up.

To credibly challenge the Conservatives, of course, the Alliance still needs to hold an entertaining convention and emerge with a policy platform that is not so crazily right-wing it spooks cautious Alberta voters. But Smith is a skilful politician, and her advisors are no dummies, so it seems plausible that they can achieve this goal.

Regardless, with Boutilier aboard, as soon as the convention excitement dies down the Wildrose Alliance will have sufficient seats in the Legislature to demand official party status from a reluctant Stelmach.

If the premier bobs and weaves and tries to deny them on a technicality, Smith and the Alliance will have a terrific stick to beat him with. If he gives up and comes across, they will have more money and a better platform from which to campaign against him. From Stelmach's perspective, this is a classic lose-lose proposition.

And after that, who knows? Maybe some more defectors from the far right of the Conservative caucus. Tory majority: 67? 66?

For his part, of course, Boutilier will have the opportunity a year after his humiliation to savour the sweet taste of a little revenge -- which, it's worth remembering, is a dish best served cold.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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