Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach won't run for office again, throwing Alberta politics into an even unsteadier state of flux. But that's okay; change is the lifeblood of democracy, and now 2011 will be a very exciting year for our province, with new ideas from every party and politician competing to determine our collective future.
As a past candidate for provincial office - in fact, I ran against Ed in the 2008 election as the Alberta Liberal candidate for Fort Saskatchewan-Vegreville - it's tough to be objective about the man. I can say without hesitation that I admire his public service; being a politician can be a pretty rough job, and he stuck it out for a quarter-century, doing what he believed was best for the province of Alberta. Maybe this sounds like boilerplate politeness, but it's true. I'll never forget getting lost in the House of Commons back in 1987; I happened to walk past Joe Clark's office and he had his head in his hands, clearly agonizing over issues that could determine the fate of millions of people. That kind of responsibility can't be easy for anyone, no matter what their political stripe.
I was a little disappointed that the Premier didn't show up to debate me and the other candidates at the election forum in Fort Saskatchewan, but I didn't make an issue of it; as the leader of a provincial party in an admittedly safe seat, he had bigger fish to fry. Perhaps my political instincts were way off base, but I didn't think I'd gain anything by calling the Premier out. (On the other hand, given the election results, surely he could have spared a day to face a public grilling from his constituents, just as the other candidates did. Hindsight is 20-20, of course.)
I met the Premier only once, at the 2009 press gallery Christmas party. I introduced myself and he was kind enough to pose for the photo above, despite our ideological differences. I thought that was very gracious.
Albertans will form their opinions of Ed Stelmach's legacy based on their own ideological preferences. As a progressive sort who believes that government is (or can be) good, I strongly support public institutions such as schools, libraries, public health care and a social safety net for the disadvantaged. As one of the Deep Six social/fiscal conservatives and as a cabinet minister, Premier Stelmach was responsible for many of the program cuts that have, in my view, harmed Alberta for the long term, and more importantly, harmed many Albertans, some of them quite vulnerable. Those who feel that eliminating the debt as quickly as possible was Alberta's biggest concern will, of course, have a different view.
I won't speculate on what Premier Stelmach's sudden departure means for the Alberta Liberals or any other party. People deeply involved in politics obsess over this sort of thing, but in the end Albertans will collectively decide who will represent them in the Legislature, and who will lead them as Premier. At this point, only one thing is certain: it won't be Ed Stelmach.