EDMONTON – Ralph Klein says Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach should resign if he doesn’t get 70 per cent support when roughly 1,500 Tory delegates hold a mandatory leadership vote Nov. 7 at the party’s annual general meeting.
The former premier made the statement Tuesday in a brief email exchange with The Canadian Press.
“I would advise he step down if he does not reach 70 per cent,” wrote Klein, who declined further comment when asked for a followup interview.
Stelmach is at a three-day cabinet retreat in Pincher Creek and could not be reached for comment, but a spokesman responded.
“Mr. Klein was a very well-respected premier in this province for many years and Premier Stelmach holds him in high regard,” said Tom Olsen. “He’s free to express an opinion.”
“The premier never takes the party for granted and going into this event in November he’s confident of support.”
Klein himself resigned as premier in 2006 after grumpy party members gave him only 55 per cent support in the leadership review required by Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives after every general election.
The man that some Albertans had come to know as “King Ralph” had become disengaged from his day-to-day duties as premier near the end of his 14 years in office and many Tories were looking for a change.
Klein had won huge majorities in four general elections and got 90 per cent approval from party members during the height of his popularity.
But party support waned after he admitted to a drinking problem and also said that his government was simply not prepared to deal with the richest energy boom in Alberta history.
Stelmach became premier after his surprise victory in the leadership contest to replace Klein and his popularity soared when he led the Tories to another hefty majority in last year’s general election.
But Stelmach has been facing growing resentment from within his own party – especially in Calgary, where the Tories lost a byelection earlier this month in a seat they had held for 40 years.
The fledging Wildrose Alliance Party won the Calgary-Glenmore byelection and the Tory candidate, a popular city council veteran, finished third behind the Liberal.
The Tory loss sent shock waves across the province and even a couple of Tory backbenchers broke ranks to criticize Stelmach’s leadership. But the premier deflected the criticism, blaming the byelection result on the recession and his government’s failure to clearly communicate its economic plans.
Stelmach’s message fell flat and appeared to fuel the grumbling in Calgary.
A recent email by Hal Walker, a high-profile Tory party member, said that Alberta’s new energy royalty structure was having a “devastating effect” on the province.
“I don’t know what Albertans need to do to get (Stelmach) and his cabinet and caucus to listen,” said the email which Walker, the former chairman of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, sent to about 200 party members and business leaders.
“When I and others have questioned the premier directly and various cabinet ministers directly and various caucus members directly, they all point to a global recession as being the cause of the fall in Alberta’s economy,” he wrote. “Would you people please wake up!”
Last week, the publisher of a political newsletter, Alberta Scan, quoted a highly placed Tory source as saying that as many as 10 government members were talking about crossing the floor to join the Wildrose Alliance.
Stelmach dismissed that report.
“I don’t stop and pay attention to a lot of that because we have a duty to govern and lead this province coming out of this recession,” the premier said Monday.
Political analysts said that while they are surprised that Tories are questioning Stelmach’s leadership after he won 72 of the province’s 83 seats in the last election, they are even more surprised that Klein is setting a benchmark for the premier.
“One would have thought that a premier who just led his troops to an overwhelming landslide victory would be untouchable,” said Peter McCormick, a political science professor at the University of Lethbridge.
“The fact that people are even thinking there could be some kind of a ‘no’ vote is really quite striking.”
McCormick said Klein is likely still smarting from the lukewarm endorsement that forced him to retire from politics and may be trying to cause a little trouble for Stelmach.
“I think it’s mischievous for a former premier to do that,” he said.
Keith Brownsey, a political analyst in Calgary, said Stelmach may feel the wrath of angry Calgarians when the leadership vote is held in Red Deer. But he believes the premier still has widespread support in rural Alberta.
“There are certain elements within the party that are distressed at the growing problems the province faces, from budget deficits to current plans to slash spending,” said Brownsey, who teaches political science at Mount Royal University.
“There may be enough there to at least put a scare into the current government,” he said. “But there hasn’t been enough dissent within the party, from what I can tell, to allow a leadership review to remove a sitting premier.”