History may yet be kind to Ed Stelmach, the soft-spoken farmer now in the waning days of his time as Alberta’s premier.
Mr. Stelmach was elected five years ago as something of an accidental premier – a third-place candidate who surprised many by winning on the second ballot, but never seemed quite able to rally his caucus as the party’s poll numbers sagged. Critics in opposition and his own caucus lamented his recession deficits as Mr. Stelmach poured money into infrastructure, which he saw as the key to Alberta’s economy.
He won another overwhelming majority in 2008. Amid a divisive caucus battle over his budget, however, he announced in January he’d leave to spend more time with family. Since then, the economy and polls have rebounded. Mr. Stelmach, 60, spoke to The Globe and Mail at his Edmonton-area farm Wednesday about what he accomplished, the state of the oil sands, his global warming doubts and the race to replace him.
What’s the Stelmach legacy?
We continued with building infrastructure, but there were other issues emerging. These were issues now tied to Alberta’s reputation on the world scene, in environment, at a time when the feds made significant promises in carbon reduction. Everyone was focusing on the province. I definitely continue to fight any kind of a cap-and-trade scheme that may come forward from anybody in the world now, but I think those days are gone now for a long, long time, because the economy is too fragile in the United States or Europe to go that direction.
Has perception of the oil sands improved?
Without a doubt. I know where we started. The fact that we are the world’s second-largest proven supplier of oil, there’s no doubt that we’ve attracted this world attention. Second to that came this world discussion about carbon dioxide and greenhouse-gas emissions and how do you try and stall the development of the oil sands through some environmental issue, as opposed to the market, because the market is working in our favour.
These are all questions in a carbon-aware world. Do you believe in climate change?
It doesn’t matter. That’s not the issue here. The issue is that it could be used as an instrument for some jurisdiction to put a tax or some restriction. Climate is changing. It always has. Now, is it changing faster? Slower? I don’t know. But there’s certainly enough of an issue there that we’ve got scientists on both sides saying no, that’s not true. I, as the trustee for the owners of the resource, have to make sure nobody can create any trade issues for us.
Have you thought about which PC leadership candidate you’ll vote for?
No, I try not to.
Could another Stelmach-like candidate pull off a come-from-behind win?
This one is a little different, because Alberta from what I gather, right here, people are very optimistic about the future. And I don’t think there are the same pressures, the same issues. You cannot predict. Somebody could say something that’s going to hurt them, or help them – chances are, the more you say, the more you get hurt.
The Wildrose party is going to miss attacking you.
They’re learning hard lessons. They’re going to focus on me personally. It’s this American-style politics. Don’t tell people what you’re going to do, you focus on the leader and you try to bring down a leader. If you bring down the leader, you think you’re going to change the government. It’s not working.
Polls show your party is ahead of Wildrose.
I don’t need a poll to tell me that we are doing better. The reason being that Albertans are very optimistic about the future. We’re at 89,000 jobs created since the recession. So that, in itself, is positive, and the future for Alberta is good. And, you know, polling, it captures that one day. I’ve always said this – the most important day for me is on election day, and most satisfying was March, 2008. Seventy-two of 83 seats. Because remember, the polls before had us down and out.
And yet you faced a showdown in caucus this year.
No, there was no showdown. I said this is the way we’re going, and I’ve proven to be right in the projections and in our fiscal position. In fact, things are looking better than I expected. So, you know, it’s looking good.
Then why leave?
I began to question myself whether I could put in the same effort, time and dedication that I did for the last 25 years. I’m in good health, and I hope I stay that way, but you never know. Look at Ralph [Klein]today. Things happen. But there’s also this other issue that I think many people in politics and maybe in positions of a CEO deal with, and that’s their own personal ego. It’s something to be said about choosing the time. And I know we’re leaving the province in a very, very good position – no matter what the opposition may say.
This interview has been edited and condensed.