MLA and Minister
Stelmach ran for the Legislative Assembly of Alberta as a Progressive Conservative in the 1993 provincial election, defeating incumbent New Democrat Derek Fox in the riding of Vegreville-Viking. Stelmach became a member of the Deep Six, a group of enthusiastically fiscally conservative rookie MLAs; in addition to supporting Premier Ralph Klein's aggressive deficit-cutting, Stelmach practiced fiscal restraint himself, incurring low office expenses and declining a government vehicle. During his first term, Stelmach served as Deputy Whip and, later, Chief Government Whip for the P.C. caucus. As a backbencher, he sponsored the Lloydminster Hospital Act Repeal Act. This was a government bill that dissolved the then-existing Lloydminster hospital board in preparation for an arrangement compliant with both the Alberta government's new system of regional health authorities and the Saskatchewan government's system. Lloydminster sits on the border of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the hospital, although built and operated by the Alberta government, sits on the Saskatchewan side. It passed the legislature with little debate. In 1996, shortly before an April by-election in Redwater, Stelmach was accused of "pork barrel politics" for presenting, along with colleague Peter Trynchy and P.C. candidate Ross Quinn, a large cheque to a local seniors centre. Stelmach said that he had only stepped in to help the riding after its MLA, Nicholas Taylor, had been appointed to the Senate.
After the 1997 provincial election, Klein appointed Stelmach Minister of Agriculture, Food, and Rural development. While he held this office, his department encouraged the establishment of feedlots. The opposition parties charged that the government was not regulating these sufficiently, but Stelmach responded that municipalities had the authority necessary to effectively regulate them. On the Canadian Wheat Board controversy, Stelmach sided with farmers who wanted an end to the federal body's monopoly on grain sales in the western provinces. Legislatively, Stelmach sponsored five bills while in the Agriculture, Food, and Rural Development portfolio, all of which passed through the legislature. 1997's Meat Inspection Amendment Act required meat inspectors to acquire a search warrant before entering a private dwelling, but also allowed for fines to be voluntarily paid without requiring a court case. It was called by Liberal agriculture critic Ken Nicol "a really good bill". The Livestock and Livestock Products Amendment Act of the same year eliminated government guarantee of the Livestock Patrons' Assurance Fund, designed to protect cattle producers from payment defaults by livestock dealers, in favour of leaving the Fund entirely in the hands of the industry. It too was supported by the Liberals, with Nicol calling it "very easy for us to accept". In 1998, Stelmach sponsored the Agriculture Statutes (Penalties) Amendment Act, which overhauled the penalty system for violation of various agricultural statutes, setting maximum fines and leaving the precise amount up to judges on a case by case basis. It also passed with Liberal support, as MLA Ed Gibbons said that it "really makes a lot of sense". Another 1998 bill was the Marketing of Agricultural Products Amendment Act, which allowed provincial agricultural marketing boards to revise their marketing plans, and was supported by the opposition. Finally, Stelmach initiated the Agriculture Statutes (Livestock Identification) Amendment Act, which allowed the government to delegate the inspection of branding to the cattle industry. The bill was the subject of considerable debate on second reading, but was ultimately supported by the Liberals on the third and final reading.
In 1999, Klein shifted Stelmach to the new Infrastructure portfolio, where he made traffic safety a priority, increasing fines for traffic offenses, sometimes by as much as 700%. He also briefly aroused controversy by proposing reversing the slow and fast lanes on provincial highways, on the grounds that this would equalize the rate at which the lanes broke down and therefore save on maintenance costs; nothing came of the proposal. He established a fund for capital projects, but has been criticized for not doing enough to address the deterioration of the province's infrastructure. In 2001, Klein separated Transportation out of the Infrastructure portfolio and appointed Stelmach to it, where the new minister advocated the use of public-private partnerships to build ring roads around Edmonton and Calgary. He also introduced a program of graduated driver licensing and initiated a review of traffic safety programs. Stelmach was re-elected by his largest majority yet during the 2001 election, and retained the Transportation portfolio until 2004, when he was re-assigned to the position of Minister of Intergovernmental Relations. He resigned this position in 2006 in order to contest the P.C. leadership election (Klein had required that ministers intending to campaign to succeed him resign from cabinet).
As minister, Stelmach kept a low profile. Mark Lisac, who was the Edmonton Journal's provincial affairs columnist during much of Stelmach's time in cabinet, later recalled that Stelmach "never did anything that was flashy or controversial in any way" and that "not a thing" stood out about Stelmach's ministerial service. This low-key style earned Stelmach the moniker "Steady Eddie", which would follow him to the Premier's office.
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