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Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach attends his annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary on July 12, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach attends his annual Stampede breakfast in Calgary on July 12, 2010. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

POLITICS

Alberta's big blue machine's dirty little secret Add to ...

Alberta's an unabashed bastion of beef, oil and Tories. That, crudely put, is what everyone knows, right? The identity is long-held, and hit a milestone this week as the Progressive Conservatives celebrated 40 consecutive years in power. It had the air of a monarch's birthday.

With the anniversary came fawning remembrances from the party and news media amid an indifferent public. Photographs from 1971 resurfaced at every turn (that was the year Stairway to Heaven came out!) while former premiers trotted out to host parties and offer rosy reflections on their rule.

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One more election victory will push these PCs past two other juggernauts of history – the turn-of-last-century Nova Scotia Liberals and Ontario's Tory government from 1943 to 1985, including the original Big Blue Machine – as Canada's longest-running provincial government.

These days, victory might seem in peril, with Alberta's upstart conservative party, Wildrose, giving the Tories their first ever right-flank challenge. Don't buy the hype. The PCs remain the dominant force in the province.

Here's their dirty open secret: They have survived 40 years because they are, at heart, a largely centrist party that swings back and forth on the political spectrum as the winds change. Some Wildrose supporters have sneered that PC stands for “phony conservative,” but the centre provides votes: The party leadership race – which will replace Premier Ed Stelmach, who is stepping down – is dominated by moderates and has seen Tory support surge, in one poll, above 50 per cent.

Tory stalwarts, opposition leaders and observers suggest six factors got the party here: a federal Liberal villain to spar with; oil riches; a monopoly on the right; weak opposition leaders; its centrist shape-shifting; and the perks of incumbency.

The dynasty was forged in the fire of Alberta's hatred for Pierre Trudeau and his national energy policy. It made the other main provincial party, the Liberals, unpalatable to a generation of Albertans.

PC rule thrived amid soaring energy prices that allowed premiers to buy their way out of trouble, and endured with the aid of a revolving door of lacklustre opposition leaders, only one of whom – right-leaning Liberal Laurence Decore – ever came close to threatening the Tories.

The party's fortunes last sank after premier Don Getty refused to cut services when oil prices dropped in the 1980s (“If it took a deficit to do it, bloody well we're going to do it,” Mr. Getty recalls). No matter. In came the populist, deficit-slaying Ralph Klein, a former Calgary mayor who became an icon of western politics.

Alberta has long favoured provincial incumbents: Before Peter Lougheed's PCs came the Social Credit Party, which ruled for 36 years before a collapse.

What carries the Tories now is largely momentum, much of which endures despite the Wildrose threat. Opposition parties have struggled to recruit talent; a lot of it just feeds into the sprawling PC tent, which now has enough small-l liberals to form its own official-opposition caucus. The Tories are the New York Yankees of Alberta politics: It's not a question of whether young political talent will sign on, but when and for what.

Meanwhile, the party is flush with donations by those unwilling to risk losing favour. It can outspend its opponents by at least 4 to 1, notwithstanding the government spending sprees around each election, such as the “Ralph Bucks,” or oil dividends, sent to Albertans and announced a year after Mr. Klein's final majority victory in 2004. Voters here equate prosperity, and the windfall, with the PCs themselves.

The cozy party has a tendency to bully people. MLAs Guy Boutilier and Raj Sherman were booted from caucus after the last election for speaking out against their own party. Few outsiders dare to dissent. The chief electoral officer did after a 2008 election plagued by irregularities, and was dismissed. (He is suing.) A regional medical officer of health, David Swann, was fired in 2002 for publicly supporting the Kyoto accord (Dr. Swann later became Liberal leader). One University of Alberta political scientist refuses to comment on the PCs publicly; his wife works for the province.

“I see a government that, in the past decade, has created all the rules to serve itself and maintain power. That's what I've seen,” says Dr. Swann, who predicts a minority government after the next election, which the Tories are free to call, at their convenience, before the spring of 2013.

Meanwhile, the Tories move with the wind and don't often stick to textbook conservative values. They are, for instance, far from tight-fisted (last year, they spent more on health care, per capita, than any other province, slightly ahead of NDP-run Manitoba) and have embraced state intervention (from the 1970s, when they founded a public energy company, to now, with recent distracted-driving laws and land-use regulations described by many as draconian).

“This is a party that's changed its skin frequently as the times have demanded,” says David Taras, a veteran observer of Alberta politics and the Ralph Klein Chair in Media Studies at Calgary's Mount Royal University. “This is the only jurisdiction, I think, in North America where there's really one-party government.”

Mr. Klein often liked to say he stayed in power by figuring out which way the parade was going and getting in front of it. “We recognized that the people of Alberta were neither on the right, nor on the left, but they were in the centre,” Mr. Lougheed says. “And that's the way we campaigned.”

The PC Party is, however, weakened. It has lost many of the arrows once held in its quiver. There's little in the way of an Ottawa archenemy, with Calgary's Stephen Harper in 24 Sussex Dr., and no big-issue causes to rally voters around. “We had issues that were really the future of our province, and I guess therefore the country,” Mr. Getty says. “And now, I think they're more issues of a finer polishing, I guess. Maybe other types of concerns, and not as vital.”

The party nevertheless holds most of the cards. For starters, it has money. In the 2008 election, the PCs spent just over $3-million. The next richest party spent $650,000.

It also will choose a new leader no later than Oct. 1, one that will continue the party's evolution.

“They're being asked to change shape again, because the province really has changed. It's really post-Nenshi Alberta,” Prof. Taras said, referring to Naheed Nenshi, the formally non-partisan but progressive first-year mayor of Calgary. “It's a new electorate, it's a young electorate and there is a mood for change. The question is: Can the party change again? And if they can't change, if it's just a yesterday party, then it's only a short time until they fall.”

But will they fall? Many, including several opposition members, doubt it. “This is,” Prof. Taras shrugs, “almost a cultural and political identity for many Albertans.”

Mr. Lougheed is also optimistic about the future, with one caveat: “If we stay in the centre.”

With a report from Dawn Walton in Calgary.

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