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No one waiting in the Alberta Conservative wings

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CALGARY -- For a province that prides itself on 43 years of stable government, Alberta finds itself embroiled in its third leadership crisis in less than 10 years.

Amid new revelations of Alison Redford's penchant for travel -- a$131,000 to fly first-class to India and a personal layover in London that would do Anthony Bourdain proud -- it was never a question of whether she would be forced to quit, but when. Still, her sudden resignation came as a surprise to all, including the feuding members of her own Progressive Conservative party.

And the skeletons keep falling out of the closet. After the CBC reported she personally authorized construction of a penthouse abode atop the newly renovated Federal Building in Edmonton, Redford became too much of an albatross for even her staunchest supporters to wear around their necks.

Still, it's pretty shabby treatment for a leader who delivered the PCs their 12th consecutive majority government in 2012. Obviously, there is serious concern among the party rank and file that there won't be a 13th when an election is called in 2016.

That raises the question of whether there is a political messiah capable of delivering a listing government from the valley of darkness. Since it deposed King Ralph in 2006, the party has consistently chewed up its best and brightest and spit them out. Former premier Ed Stelmach led the PCs to the largest majority in Alberta history, but that wasn't enough to keep the knives from coming out against him either.

With friends like those, who needs enemies? Moreover, who would even want the headache given all the present turmoil?

Dave Hancock, who was sworn in as interim premier until a leadership race is called in September, is an obvious front-runner and one of the few who could unite a divided party. But he has precluded himself from making a serious run by accepting the yoke of the premier's office.

The other potential suitors all carry their own baggage. Treasurer Doug Horner is an obvious choice, but the son of Lougheed-era stalwart Hugh Horner epitomizes the dynastic succession and aura of entitlement that has plagued Redford. Besides, his latest budget puts the province on track for a $20-billion deficit by 2020. One thing Albertans do not take kindly to is red ink.

The younger generation, represented by Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, claim to shoot from the hip and tell it like it is. But both carry strong ambitions and questionable motives that typify the internal backstabbing that has defined the PCs for almost a decade.

Municipal Affairs Minister Ken Hughes is a relative unknown with an impressive resumé and impeccable management skills. Energy Minister Diana McQueen is an up-and-comer who has turned heads with her short stint in the portfolio. The trouble is, as sitting cabinet ministers, all are insiders in an unpopular government.

Alternatively, the PCs could look to an outsider to inject fresh blood: Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi has been tossed about as such a candidate. Though he is certainly popular, it's tough to call His Purpleness conservative by any stretch.

Former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice is a polished candidate with the right combination of grassroots support and credibility. Once considered a successor to Prime Minister Stephen Harper, Prentice has all the tools in the kit.

But his resignation in 2010 to become vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce smacks of elitism and firmly establishes him as a one-percenter who may be a little too out of touch with everyday voters. Albertans consider themselves to be an egalitarian bunch who may be put off by his penchant for tailored blazers and shiny cufflinks.

Plus, whoever is chosen will have to deal with the unruly mob that is the PC caucus. As Redford learned too well, it isn't a big-tent party as much as a collection of competing interests squabbling among themselves to carve up the golden goose. Prentice would have as hard a time uniting the hordes as any of his predecessors.

With so many internal factions, it's not clear whether there is enough room to maintain the centre of the political spectrum. Hardcore conservatives have been unhappy with what they perceive as a leftward tilt under Stelmach and Redford. With the Wildrose nipping at their heels, the threat is clearly on the right. But the party of Peter Lougheed has its political roots, and greatest success, as a small-c conservative party that balances progressive small-l liberal social principles with conservative fiscal management.

As Redford's resignation shows, today's PC party lacks both.


Eye on Alberta columnist Shaun Polczer's work has appeared in local and national Canadian newspapers, in addition to international publications in 99 countries.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 3, 2014 A13

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