Alberta Tories backpedal amid dismal poll results

Alberta’s Tory government is trying to steer itself out of turmoilafter several unpopular decisions have shaken the foundations ofPremier Ed Stelmach’s comfortable majority.

Alberta’s Tory government is trying to steer itself out of turmoil after several unpopular decisions have shaken the foundations of Premier Ed Stelmach’s comfortable majority.

Stelmach has two years before the next election, but his current prospects are grim.

A poll released before Christmas put his Progressive Conservatives more than a dozen points behind the Wildrose Alliance. Two government members recently jumped ship to the young, conservative rival and there is plenty of grumbling from within the Tory ranks.

Stelmach began the new year with a cabinet shuffle that saw embattled Health Minister Ron Liepert move to energy and fiscal hawk Ted Morton moved to finance, where he promptly declared that the “all-you-can-eat buffet” of spending is closed.

Last week, newly appointed Health Minister Gene Zwozdesky, who brings a softer touch to the file than Liepert had, halted roughly 450 hospital bed closures, the prospects of which had generated passionate protests around the province.

And more backtracking is in the works.

Stelmach has set the stage for announcing reductions to energy royalties in a few weeks after the government releases a so-called competitiveness review of the industry. Royalties have been a sore spot for the government since a decision was made to hike them back in 2007.

The tense political landscape has set the stage for a lively spring sitting of legislature that opens with a throne speech Feb. 4, followed by a provincial budget on Feb. 9.

Stelmach is now in damage control mode. “It’s like they’ve seen the Wildrose iceberg and they’re trying to steer the Titanic before it’s too late,” as one Tory insider put it last week.

Zwozdesky says he’s hopeful of a turnaround in the polls.

“In terms of the optics, I guess people will judge that for themselves,” he says. “We’ve gotten some very difficult policy decisions out of the way.”

But political analyst David Taras says the resentment among disaffected Tories runs deep.

He points to a different poll released before Christmas that put Stelmach’s approval rating at “the lowest of any premier in the history of Alberta.”