Front-runner to replace Klein sees a kinder, gentler Alberta

Dinning says the province should turn down swagger a notch, work in the federation

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The Gazette, Friday, July 21, 2006

In the race for the leadership of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party, there are seven candidates and one front-runner, Jim Dinning.

A former provincial treasurer and education minister, Dinning at 53 has the strongest resume, the highest name recognition, the deepest pockets, the strongest organization and the most caucus support.

There is a sense, in a dynastic party that has been in office for 35 years, that it's Dinning's turn. But he's also been out of government for nine years, and the political skills of crown princes can go rusty in the corporate world.

The question is, having waited his turn, is Dinning ready? Does he have a plan for managing Alberta's prosperity? And how does he see its role in the federation?

At his Calgary office the other day, Dinning considered these questions, and appeared both relaxed and ready for the race expected to culminate in a late November choice of Ralph Klein's successor.

"The big concern I have," says Dinning, "is that we are coasting through prosperity rather than doing the right things to benefit from prosperity. What we need in the 21st century is a plan to build on the fabulous foundation that Albertans and good fortune have created for us."

Dinning identifies education, technology and the environment as the top three investment opportunities for a province that is debt free and sitting on a surplus of at least $8 billion this year.

"Clearly education is the most important building block," Dinning says. "Oil and gas is not going to be here forever, and the thing is to invest in renewable rather than non-renewable" resources. He would put the surplus to work "to increase the number of places in post secondary education." But he also sees early child care as a priority.

"If we can get early child care right," he says, "the results will be there 20 and 30 years down the road. It's about healthy moms having healthy kids with Grade 3 reading skills at age 10. It's about becoming an incubator for a healthy society."

His second and third priorities, technology and the environment, are actually one and the same.

"We need to invest in environmental technologies for the oil sands," Dinning says. "We could capture all the CO2 and store it."

And perhaps even commercialize it? Such was the case, as Dinning well knows, with acid rain. Inco captured the sulphur from its Sudbury plant, then the largest producer of SO2 in the world, and turned a profit on it.

As economic and political power move West, Alberta's role in the federation assumes increased importance. Dinning is the protege of Peter Lougheed, who named him deputy minister of intergovernmental affairs when he was only 31 years old. Dinning's shares his mentor's view that Alberta's clout isn't determined by its cash position so much as by the friends it makes around the table of the federation.

"We're punching below our weight in the federation," Dinning says. "Looking across the country, there's little in the way of a national agenda."

One thing all provinces share is a concern for the runaway costs of health care. Dinning reels off the statistics: It's 55 per cent of the budget of Newfoundland and Labrador, 45 per cent of Quebec and Ontario, and 40 per cent even in rich Alberta.

In making friends for Alberta in other provinces, he says, "we in Alberta could turn down the swagger level just a notch, and in a modest way get out there and tell our story about how Alberta contributes to the rest of the country."

As for managing success, the issues include inflation, a labour market shortage and a high school dropout rate that's increasing because 17-year-old kids can make $60,000 a year driving trucks in Fort McMurray.

But Dinning says flatly: "We need to be energized, not burdened, by this success."

That seems to be his own mindset about a race in which Dinning has emerged as the clear front-runner since Preston Manning decided to take a pass. It's a one-person, one-vote system, so in theory whoever sells the most memberships can win.

In the real world, while no one is likely to win such a competitive race on the first ballot, Dinning is the one to beat on the second.

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