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Ted Morton: Alberta's charisma-challenged firebrand takes his shot

Alberta MLA ted Morton is running for the leadership of the province's long-governing Progressive Conservative Party.

Jason Franson for The Globe and Mail/jason franson The Globe and Mail

Grinning and glad-handing, however disingenuous, have long been surefire ways to win votes. It's basic retail politics.

Not for Ted Morton. The take-me-or-leave-me Alberta conservative is hoping to ride his stone-faced, back-off disposition to the helm of a Canadian political dynasty.

For ages, the wonkish Calgary professor stood back while his friends, many of them similarly bereft of charisma, rode headlong into politics – Stephen Harper, Preston Manning and others, all cast in the fire of so-called Calgary School conservatism.

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When Mr. Morton's time came, the pro-Alberta firebrand (watch out, Ontario and Quebec) set his sights provincially and is now seeking the reins of the Progressive Conservative party, and the premier's chair that for nearly 40 years has come with it.

He lost the same bid five years ago, written off by some as a dangerous social conservative. He's again firmly on the right flank as the party faces a new threat on the right – Wildrose, a libertarian upstart led by yet another Morton confidant, the grinning, glad-handing Danielle Smith.

Mr. Morton is, to say the least, not Ms. Smith. He doesn't charm or woo voters, or even tell them what they want to hear. Nope. He often does the opposite. He'll walk into a room of riled-up Wildrose supporters, tell them they're wrong (about, for instance, a land-use act he championed, which Ms. Smith has depicted as an attack on landowner rights) and sit back to take a drubbing, unfazed.

He's an open book who doesn't hide his own values: pro-life, anti-gay-marriage, anti-deficit at all costs and open to more private health care.

"I think this leadership is not just about the message, it's about the messenger," he says in one of a series of interviews with The Globe and Mail. "I think people want a leader who has vision, is articulate and inspires both confidence and hope."

He has strengths: A recent poll put him in second, he's on pace to raise $1.5-million, more than it took Ed Stelmach to win the leadership in 2006, and once held the finance portfolio. He's positioned himself as the only one able to shift the party right and snuff out Wildrose, the potential for which earned him a Globe quasi-endorsement last weekend.

What's working against him? Plenty. At 62, he's no spring chicken. Wildrose's numbers are slumping, leaving him positioned as the solution to an evaporating problem (and, supporters say, he is considering changing his pitch). He oversaw deficit budgets – hardly a hawk's ideal résumé – and plans an Alberta-first agenda that will, more or less, require him to spit in the face of his friend, the Prime Minister, on issues of equalization and health transfers.

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Oh, and people still find him eerily cold, not unlike another certain conservative leader. One rival likens Mr. Morton to Lord Voldemort, the pale, serpentine, soul-splitting villain in the Harry Potter series. It's an image problem his team is trying to correct by forcing the occasional smile onto their candidate's face and equipping him with some centrist policy.

Less Ted, more teddy bear.

The son of a Wyoming Republican state representative, Frederick Lee Morton was given long-held family names his parents didn't actually like. So, they called him Ted. It stuck.

Once an eager Young Republican and athlete, college rebellion took hold of young Ted.

"I was a stereotypical sixties student. Had long hair, beads, smoked pot, anti-war – all that stuff," Mr. Morton says. He sought an identity where many conservatives wouldn't – a commune.

"And the communes in North America were held together either by drugs or by religious fanaticism, so that didn't appeal to me too much. So we went off to Israel where the kibbutzes are," he said of a move made with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Bambi. "So we tried that for 10 months, and that cured me of socialism. Ten per cent of the people did 90 per cent of the work. There's lots of free riders."

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His studies brought him to the University of Toronto, and so it was that a western American with a chip on his shoulder landed in Canada in 1973.

"People often say: 'Peter, you were a supervisor of Ted Morton?' Then their brow wrinkles up," said University of Toronto professor emeritus Peter Russell, who oversaw Mr. Morton in his graduate studies. Mr. Russell recalls Morton writing about activist courts, and also the role of women – of homemakers – in liberal democracy. Not a popular argument amid second-wave feminism in 1970s Toronto.

"As soon as I put those words out, people said: 'Oh, boy, this guy is really a Neanderthal,' " Prof. Russell said.

When an energy crisis struck, it raised Mr. Morton's ire. "The more populous and politically influential eastern consuming states and provinces wanted the government to put a cap on the price of oil, to keep prices down for their voters. Of course, in Canada, that translated into the NEP," he recalls.

For a westerner with a distrust of the east and a doctorate, the University of Calgary was a perfect fit. He arrived as the National Energy Program was introduced. Members of his so-called Calgary School began as advisers to Mr. Manning. "Like most things in life – alcoholism or drug abuse – my involvement with politics was incremental," Mr. Morton says.

The Calgary School circles saw him introduced to a young Stephen Harper. Those ties still bind – though Mr. Harper's spokesman denied he is supporting Mr. Morton, it's Harperites up and down the campaign team.

Mr. Morton received dual citizenship in 1993. As an academic and popular lecturer, he opposed Meech Lake ("bad for Alberta"), the Charlottetown Accord and revisited his old interest, activist courts, in fighting a 1998 Supreme Court decision that extended job protection to gay Albertans.

The firebrand was one of two senator-elects Alberta put forward in futility during the Chrétien era. He then served as director of policy and research for the Canadian Alliance.

"A year in Ottawa persuaded me that Ottawa was not for me," he says. "The voice of Western Canada in Ottawa is very faint." Or, at least, it was.

His platform prioritizes spending cuts, low taxes and a stable energy royalties regime, but has centrist elements. He has emphasized environmental conservation, if only to scare off Ottawa, which he says is "grabbing jurisdiction in leaps and bounds." He proposed a tuition tax credit and a new licence plate designed by Canadian artist Robert Bateman – pointedly, it drops the slogan: Wild Rose Country.

Among those cheering for Mr. Morton are some unlikely people – Liberal and Wildrose supporters who think they can beat him.

"He's from the Voldemort version of a greeting card," says Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman, no fan of the professor. "That doesn't look to me like it's going to be a hard battle," Ms. Smith adds with a smile.

Perhaps the most compelling question of his candidacy is what a Morton win would do for federal-provincial relations.

"Almost all the issues that will affect us in the coming decade – equalization, health-care transfers, labour-force mobility, new export pipelines – will depend on the relationship with Ottawa," Mr. Morton told one crowd. "I've known and worked with Prime Minister Harper for over 20 years. We understand each other, and we trust each other."

He wants to work with him again. But first, the public needs to be sold on a kinder, gentler Ted.

"I don't know if it will work or not," said Tom Flanagan, a former Harper adviser and fellow Calgary Schooler. "But he's got a problem."

Josh Wingrove is The Globe and Mail's correspondent in Edmonton.

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Josh is a parliamentary reporter in Ottawa. Before moving to the nation's capital in 2013, he covered provincial affairs in Edmonton and throughout Alberta. He joined the Globe in 2008 in Toronto before returning to his home province in 2010. More

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