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Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Ted Morton speak to reporters after the finance minister announced his resignation in Calgary on Jan. 26, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach and Ted Morton speak to reporters after the finance minister announced his resignation in Calgary on Jan. 26, 2011. (Jeff McIntosh/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Ted Morton and his 'phony Conservatives' look to rebuild Add to ...

To get a grasp of the suddenly overturned political landscape in Alberta and the uphill battle facing leadership candidate Ted Morton, consider the case of 77-year-old Stanley Schumacher.

It was in 1953 that Mr. Schumacher first bought his Alberta Progressive Conservative party membership. Since then, he's been as PC as they come - serving as an MLA and as Speaker of the House. In the party's 2006 leadership race, Mr. Schumacher raised money for Mr. Morton's failed bid.

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But much has changed. Mr. Schumacher, like so many conservatives in Alberta, has given up on the PC party, frustrated by large deficits, a flip-flop on energy royalties and a draconian land use law personally championed by Mr. Morton.

Now, after a showdown this week between former finance minister Mr. Morton and Premier Ed Stelmach led to both men's surprise departure from cabinet, the party is seeking a new leader. Mr. Morton is running.

This time, Mr. Schumacher won't be behind him.

"I totally misjudged him," Mr. Schumacher said this week, adding: "I've been saying for a couple years now: PC stands for Phony Conservative."

Herein lies the key challenge facing Mr. Morton, 61, a fiscal hawk and social conservative: While most liberals and red Tories fear he's an extremist, the right-wing base he courts is fractured.

"Many of the people who supported Ted are now either Wildrose sympathizers, or members, or staffers," said Doug Main, a former campaign staffer for Mr. Morton who is among those who've switched parties.

Mr. Morton's candidacy announcement Thursday capped a tumultuous and unprecedented week in Alberta politics. On Tuesday, Mr. Morton planned to resign in protest over a budget he believes has too high a deficit (precisely the type of thing that alienated people such as Mr. Schumacher). He feared supporting it would be political suicide on the far right.

To try to hold the party together, Mr. Stelmach beat him to the punch and announced his own resignation, expected to take effect in the spring. After two days of closed-door meetings, Mr. Morton stepped down Thursday and said he'd seek the leadership - something he'd hoped to do since he lost in 2006, sources say.

But with Wildrose thriving on its right flank, the PCs face a choice if they're to continue a reign that began in 1971. They can choose a moderate candidate and pitch a big political tent - Justice Minister Alison Redford, Deputy Premier Doug Horner and Federal Conservative MP James Rajotte are among those considering it.

Or the party can move right and seek to woo back people such as Mr. Schumacher ("I will never buy one of those memberships again," he insisted). If that's the plan, Mr. Morton has all the trappings of a far-right candidate.

In 1998, for instance, he lamented the activist streak of Canada's judicial system after a ruling that people can't be fired for being gay. He would slash spending on social and arts programs and has supported a slew of nationalist policies, such as a provincial police force and pension plan - while using the notwithstanding clause to clear legal hurdles.

All told, his vision for Alberta is as an ever-more conservative bastion. But like his party, Mr. Morton has lost his base. Among his crosses to bear is a controversial law he championed that gives cabinet unilateral control over all land use with little compensation and no judicial accountability or appeals process. The law "extinguishes" individual land rights.

In rural Alberta, the notion of losing land rights is tremendously unpopular politically. Word is spreading, town hall meetings attract upwards of 500 attendees - precisely the type of votes Mr. Morton would hope for.

Instead, "I get a lot of people who are very upset at Dr. Morton," said land use lawyer Keith Wilson, who presents the information sessions and calls the law "frightening."

Vitor Marciano, a former Morton staffer who is now Wildrose's executive director, said "it's hard to explain how upset [voters]get over it."

If the PCs look right to Mr. Morton to stop the bleeding to Wildrose, they'll run into people like Mr. Schumacher, who say it won't work. Instead, they may look to a moderate to unite the party and woo back supporters who aren't yet convinced by either party.

"I haven't made any decisions, but I can tell you - the PC party's got a lot of work to do," said Brett Wilson, a Calgary businessman and Dragons' Den co-host who is active in local political circles. "Not just with me, but with a lot of Albertans."

Follow on Twitter: @josh_wingrove

 

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