When in doubt, stall.
There's not a politician on this planet who hasn't tried this one from time to time, for the sensible reason it often works. After all, the media and the public are like a kitten with a string -- they lose interest easily.
So the buzz at the Alberta Legislature today was that the battered and reeling Tory government of Premier Ed Stelmach, coming off a spectacularly bad 2010 and contemplating a fairly iffy 2011, is about to give itself a little extra breather by delaying the spring session of the Legislature until late February.
With any luck, they're presumably thinking, by the time the Legislature gets back, everyone will have forgotten about what a lousy job they've been doing and Albertans will vote for their Conservative natural governing party in 2012 just like they did in 2008.
And, hey, they may also think, we can have a nice quiet tour of the province, shake some paws, and piss and moan about the weather with the farmers while we wait for petroleum prices to go up again!
Good plan. But don't bet on it working. Alas for Mr. Stelmach and his less-than-merry band of MLAs, this gambit is unlikely to work very well for at least five reasons:
1) The Conservatives have painted themselves into a corner on the budget. They promised everyone an end to deficits by 2012. But the economy hasn't performed as expected. It's doubtful they can do it without major and unpopular cuts. Sure, crude oil prices are up, but natural gas prices are still deep in the well and look to stay there. The Tories can look like incompetents who can't deliver on their promises, or they can keep their promise and look like nincompoops who put Canada's richest province in the poorhouse. There's no happy way for this to end.
2) Alberta's health care controversy just isn't going away. Stephen Duckett, the top provincial health bureaucrat the Conservatives fired in November, won't go away. He had a cranky letter in the Edmonton Journal just yesterday defending his record. Raj Sherman, the emergency room physician they fired as parliamentary assistant for health on November 22, is planning his own tour of the province, and unlike the Tory tour it won't all be happy talk. Opposition political parties are wooing Sherman like mad. And the Emergency Room crisis that keeps the health care pot boiling is sure as heck not going away. Wait for horrible new revelations in the weeks ahead. After all, Sherman knows where the bodies are buried, metaphorically speaking.
3) The Opposition's getting better. Well, maybe not the Official Opposition. The Liberals, under Dr. David Swann, are almost as hopeless as the government. The Opposition Leader's weirdly passive Question Period style seems designed to put viewers to sleep, and firing his communications director isn't going to change that. But the Wildrose Alliance is getting better in Question Period -- maybe they really were taught by Gunnery Sergeant and NDP Leader Brian Mason! Former Tory Rob Anderson is becoming particularly effective at badgering the government. When the spring sitting finally begins, they'll score more hits.
4) Tory defections to the Wildrose Alliance may not be over. Quietly ask a Conservative MLA whether he's going to seek the Tory nomination or the Wildrose nomination next time and you might get an answer like this: "I doubt if you really expect me to answer that question. As the saying goes, a day is a long time in politics." Well, that's hardly a ringing denial, is it? (Names have been omitted to protect the guilty.)
5) The popularity of the Wildrose Alliance continues to grow. Their right-wing policies may worry many Albertans, but they have a formula that works: They picked a leader who seems interested in what people have to say and speaks well, even if you can't remember what she was talking about when she leaves the hall. And they work hard. Harder than any other party, as a matter of fact, except perhaps the much smaller NDP. Unlike some prominent Liberals, the Wildrose Alliance doesn't view politics as a part-time job. Unlike the Alberta Party, the Alliance has concluded there's more to political success than coffee.
We shouldn't rule out Stelmach, of course. After all, he's a survivor. But these days he looks tired and demoralized. His caucus looks frightened and bedraggled. If a palace coup isn't brewing, I'll swear off sticky buns!
Meanwhile, Albertans really do want change. They wanted change in 2008, too, but in the end they couldn't bring themselves to vote for opposition parties that looked like the same old same old. Now there's a new opposition party that looks like it might be able to do the job -- and maybe there'll be two by the time an election rolls around if the Alberta Party gets down to work.
Last time, it was almost enough for the government just to tell Albertans Stelmach was a nice guy. Well, he's still a nice guy, but that's not going to cut it this time.
Neither is six weeks of delay before the Legislature sits again.
The Conservatives may have put off the pain, but a world of hurt is coming their way just the same. Increasingly, they look like a party on the ropes.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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