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Long-shot candidacy by Employment Minister 'Landslide Lukaszuk' reappears on Alberta's radar screen

Alberta Employment Minister Thomas Lukaszuk

Alberta Employment and Immigration Minister Thomas Lukaszuk was in the news enough times last week to fuel renewed speculation he's about to toss his hat into the ring and announce he's a candidate for the Progressive Conservative Party leadership.

There was his announcement of the government's controversial split minimum wage followed immediately by promises of long-overdue reforms of the province's lackadaisical approach to workplace safety. There was also a rumour emanating from the environs of the Legislature that briefing books had been prepared for a new minister.

What's more, Lukaszuk's constituency association plans a morning fundraiser on June 16, at which breakfasters are offered the opportunity to "reflect on the past few years of Alberta politics and discuss what the future could hold…"

So, cheap shots from the blogosphere notwithstanding, it's possible that there is in fact something to the persistent rumour Lukaszuk will soon join the race to replace Premier Ed Stelmach when he steps down in the fall.

Despite Lukaszuk's eccentric minimum-wage policy and Lord Greystoke locks, the Polish-born MLA for Edmonton-Castle Downs, 42, is in fact a pretty bright guy and would probably make an OK Alberta premier, all things considered. He's a moderate in Tory circles and not a creature of the hard right, which would surely be better for the province than some of the alternatives now in the race.

He's only been in cabinet since January 2010, but he's been a Member of the Legislature since 2001, so he's not without experience. It's hard to say, based on what Albertans have seen of the man, if he'd be tough enough as leader to stand up to a fractious post-Stelmach cabinet. But here's a wager that he might surprise some of his cabinet colleagues at just how tough he is.

Certainly, Lukaszuk is a survivor, having squeaked through one election fight with only three votes -- and only then after a court challenge. This earned him the moniker "Landslide Lukaszuk."

Of course, none of this says Lukaszuk really stands much chance of winning against such well-established heavyweights as Gary Mar, Ted Morton, Doug Horner and Alison Redford. Still, hope springs eternal in the breasts of ambitious politicians, and there's always the possibility of one ending up as a kingmaker and scoring a high-profile front-bench cabinet portfolio from a grateful new premier.

Like Lukaszuk, two other members of the premier's current cabinet have been frequently mentioned in the media as possible additional candidates: Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, an old crooner almost as smooth as Mel Tormé; and sharp-tongued Culture Minister Lindsay Blackett.

The question is, have these three hurt their chances by waiting so long to declare themselves as candidates -- if indeed that is what they intend to do?

After all, it seems unsporting to take advantage of the automatic high profile that goes with a cabinet post while other serious candidates resign their portfolios to run. Stelmach has certainly made it clear that in his opinion, which he remains in a position to enforce, if you want to be a candidate, you can't remain in the cabinet. This created an instant sort of parliamentary convention, and most Albertans seemed to agree in theory that it's a sound policy.

This was obviously good enough for three candidates now in the race who started out from Stelmach's cabinet.

Morton, who was finance minister, stepped down and declared his candidacy back on Jan. 27, as soon as the premier made it public that he would be stepping aside.

Horner, who had been deputy premier, quit cabinet and announced his candidacy on Feb. 4. Redford, who was justice minister, Tweeted her plan to run on Feb. 16, to the delight of the mainstream media, which has recently joined the Twitterati.

None of the other candidates now in the race -- Mar, Doug Griffiths and Rick Orman -- have recently held cabinet portfolios.

So, given obvious public sentiment, waiting so long while hanging on to a cabinet post (plus its perks, free publicity and extra pay) should hurt any candidate that does so. But what folks say they think and how they act may be two very different things. So it is said here that staying in cabinet as long as possible and then announcing likely won't hurt a candidate’s chances, and might even help them.

After all, we live in an age when Parliamentary conventions and traditions are falling faster than autumn leaves, if indeed anyone other than a few political scientists and Parliamentary traditionalists even understands what they are.

If a prime minister can be elected to a majority government by Canadian voters after proroguing Parliament twice to stay in power and being declared to be in contempt of that institution, it's a safe bet that no voter in Alberta will give a hoot if Lukaszuk or Zwozdesky hangs onto a cabinet post while taking their sweet time to announce a run for their party's leadership.

Ultimately, this boils down to a minor political consideration and nothing more, and it may very well help to remain in cabinet to the last possible second while getting one's campaign organized -- especially for second-tier candidates like Lukaszuk, Zwozdesky and Blackett.

That said, this trio may just have been having a little fun running flags up the pole to see if anyone salutes.

One way or the other, though, we'll know soon enough: candidates will only have until mid-July, tentatively set as the closing of the official nomination period, to make up their minds.

Indeed, according to the party's leadership contest rules, the declared candidates aren't really in the race yet. That must wait until the nomination period officially opens and candidates file their papers and submit their $40,000 deposits.

So, given the size of the entry fee, we're as likely to be surprised by declared candidates dropping out as by new ones materializing out of the woodwork.

One thing is for sure, if these three join the race, and all six who have declared their intention to run stay in, it will almost guarantee the contest goes beyond a first ballot, with all the uncertainty and potential drama that entails.

Indeed, these are the very kind of circumstances in which a long-shot candidate like Lukaszuk could come up the middle and surprise everyone -- just as Stelmach did back in 2006.

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

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