Yesterday Mr. Stelmach took the unusual step of expelling a member of the government caucus.
Interesting and unusual in itself, the real importance of the event may be whether or not it indicates a larger issue. On the face of it Boutilier's comments, while definitely uncomfortable for the government, hardly seem indicative of a serious opposition to the PC party. The man is, lest we forget, a former cabinet member of the party that just expelled him from caucus. In addition the criticisms he is making certainly echo those of his constituents. The inadequacy of Fort McMurray's infrastructure is a commonplace, both in the city itself and in Alberta politics. To my mind Mr. Boutilier's job as an MLA required him to say more or less what he said.
What I find interesting is that this move seems atypical for the Stelmach PC government. For one thing it is an open admission of, and invitation to, conflict - the one thing this government studiously avoids. Good luck finding an official mention of Bill 44 or the public outcry about that bill in any government publication.* The government's RSS feed doen't even list Bill 44 as one of the achievements of the last session!
In addition the PC party has worked hard to maintain itself as the biggest tent possible. The gap between Ted Morton and Jim Dinning in philosophical terms is much larger than that between most PCs and Liberals. This move is unusually decisive and divisive.
Opponents of the PCs are already taking this move as either the beginning of the end, with David Swann posting "the friendly farmer image is gone, now we can see the tight fisted control of this administration " on twitter, and a liberal blogger posting an entry on the viability of the PC party in Alberta http://pierretrudeauismyhomeboy.blogspot.com/2009/07/change-that-works-for-ed-stelmach.html . This of course builds on the pressure by the Wild Rose Alliance, and its implications for the right wing support of the PCs. (see Daveberta's entry of July 13th here: http://daveberta.blogspot.com/)
On the whole it appears that the strain of the recession combined with the inertia and lack of vision, or at least common vision, within the PC party after 37 years in power may be coming to a head. There is enormous energy in Alberta, but it doesn't owe anything to the government and hasn't for some time. The last several Alberta elections have seen the PCs run successfully on a caretaker agenda of 'don't rock the boat and we won't screw it up'. Should their image of bland certainty start to fade there may be the groundwork for real political change here in Alberta.
It would be well, however, for opponents of the PCs to remember the strengths of the government. In addition to their almost unwieldy majority (which may in itself be the cause of the Boutilier issue) the PCs have the fundraising, the relationships and total control over the apparatus of the province. All that, in addition to the habitual loyalty of a large percentage of the electorate.
The political weather may be changing, as a lot of challenges are coming to a head in the PC party here in Alberta. The most important element of that potential for change lies within the PC party at this time, however, and the real interest to me in the Boutilier affair is where it leads the factions within the party and the caucus over the next few months.