Alison Redford and Ted Morton reach an uneasy peace

After an embarrassing hiccup, two rivals make nice

February 09, 2012

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“What have I done?” That thought, or one much like it, must have flitted through Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s head on Friday, October 21. It had nothing to do with her come-from-behind victory in the Progressive Conservative leadership race just 20 days before. It had everything to do with her decision to name Ted Morton as energy minister in her new cabinet.

On October 21, Morton created a political fiasco for the new premier by sending a letter to the Alberta Utilities Commission asking it to “suspend or adjourn” assessment of the proposed 500-kilovolt Heartland transmission line between Wabamun and Fort Saskatchewan. By suspending the Heartland line, Morton had not only overstepped his bounds, he had Redford’s office wondering whether he was staging a palace coup in miniature – not overthrowing but undermining.

That very morning, Redford had explicitly told Morton in a face-to-face meeting she wanted him to suspend two highly controversial north-south power lines, not the west-east Heartland line. However, Morton, who wasn’t a fan of any of the transmission lines, apparently took affairs into his own hands and announced all three lines were being suspended.

The story immediately hit the virtual newsstands – but hours went by before word got back to Redford’s stunned advisors, who flew into a tizzy of conflicting advice. Redford wanted to immediately countermand Morton’s announcement but there were others who were afraid that contradicting Morton publicly would indicate the fledgling Redford administration was in turmoil. “When it came to Morton, some of us thought the worst,” says one insider.

The more paranoid insiders saw echoes of Morton’s budget coup against Ed Stelmach a year ago that had forced the former premier to resign and allowed Morton a second (unsuccessful) run at the party leadership. What was Morton up to this time? Redford loyalists couldn’t decide if his actions were an act of stupidity or incompetence. Since nobody has ever accused Morton of being stupid or incompetent, that left a third option: deliberate defiance. Was Morton using his position to scuttle the Heartland line, betting Redford would quietly back down?

If so, he bet wrong. The first chance she got – a joint news conference with visiting British Columbia Premier Christy Clark – Redford contradicted Morton. The assessment of the Heartland line would go ahead. “Mr. Morton and I did have a conversation,” Redford told reporters in Calgary. She and Morton had got their wires crossed: “It was miscommunication.”

As predicted, Redford’s announcement opened the government up to charges of incompetence but it also sent a signal to the public and her caucus: Redford was in charge and she would do what she thought right. “Many people with good intentions are trying to move too quickly,” she added, giving Morton a soft landing.

However, there are members of Redford’s team who wonder still if Morton had “good intentions” that day. But it’s probably all a moot point. If Morton was offside before, he seems to be onside now. If it was indeed a “miscommunication,” his ears have been thoroughly cleaned. Morton needs Redford; she also needs him.

By putting him where she did in cabinet, Redford has signaled to the energy industry she’s not going to monkey with royalty rates as her predecessor did. His inclusion at the big table is in part a sop to the right-wingers, proof that Redford is upholding the Tories’ “big tent” ideals. Morton also brings skills. He is smart, articulate and, perhaps most importantly, a former finance minister.

Redford is looking to Morton to help develop a Canadian energy strategy, one that gets more of Alberta’s landlocked oil to the United States or Asia. “Energy is essentially a finance portfolio,” says one senior government official. “How do we develop our economic strategy? It has to come from (the department of) energy.”

If the energy industry is the goose that lays the golden eggs, Morton is charged with getting more of the eggs to market. Redford needs Morton’s expertise to increase revenue and thereby help balance the provincial budget. So the fiscal hawk is guarding the goose coop, but his political talons have been clipped. “When it comes to Morton,” says the senior official, “there are no loyalty issues.”

Graham Thomson is an award-winning provincial affairs columnist for the Edmonton Journal.
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Comments

  • Concerned Alberta

    So who got to Redford about the Heartland line? She clearly promised it was going to get a formal review….Morton was simply following through on her campaign.

    This one smells of corruption.