Jim Prentice has a tall order rebuilding Alberta's PCs

April 30, 2014

Can Jim Prentice save the Alberta Progressive Conservatives?

Mr. Prentice obviously believes so, but some of his friends think he is slightly daft for leaving his post as vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Canada. Why give up the big money, public platform and stimulation of his current post for the uncertainties and unpleasantries of public life? they ask, not unreasonably.

Mr. Prentice did his time in public life as a senior minister in Ottawa. He's been there, done that and quit while he was ahead. What's the point, beyond the perils of vanity, in returning to the arena? Especially when the party he will lead – he will win the leadership easily and become premier in early September – is a rickety imitation of its once impregnable self.

You can easily imagine the crude attacks to come from the Wildrose Party and the province's right-wing radio hosts. "Ottawa Big Shot Returns!" "Rich Banker Tells Alberta What To Do!" "Bay Street." And the worst cut of all, "Moderate!"

Alison Redford was a disaster as premier and Progressive Conservative leader. She alienated just about everybody, ran down the party's finances, failed to balance the provincial budget and generally oversaw a disorganized government. No tears were shed when she left.

But the rot – it might also be called fatigue – inside the Progressive Conservative Party runs deeper than the Redford years. The last half of Ralph Klein's time as premier was a period of gathering disaffection within the party and restlessness in the province that Alberta lacked vision and direction to accompany its wealth. Along came Ed Stelmach as the next leader, a decent, nice man and a solid minister, but not someone who reinvigorated the party or stirred the province.

When Mr. Stelmach left, the party tried a Hail Mary play in selecting Ms. Redford, who had almost no caucus or ministerial support. Now the party, internally depleted and politically anxious, is opening its arms beseechingly for Mr. Prentice.

What are Albertans getting? For sure, someone who has been a very effective No. 2, both in Ottawa and in banking. Jim Prentice won't fumble any files handed to him. He is competent, thorough, thoughtful. The trains will run on time. He actually listens. He is a small-c conservative in fiscal matters, but not a social conservative of the type populating the Wildrose Party and Stephen Harper's federal Conservatives in Alberta. He's a pragmatist and a problem-solver.

If the province wants populist politics, as in the anti-government, lower-tax rhetoric spiced with angry self-pity at the deviousness of Ottawa and the "East," it won't get it from him. He actually believes in the scientific reality of climate change, unlike a bunch of his fellow Albertans, including many of his former Conservative MP colleagues in Ottawa.

His view of Alberta's energy predicament is correct in fact, but challenging in politics.

Because he was federal environment minister and has spent part of his career dealing with First Nations, Mr. Prentice knows that the oil industry and provincial governments have been parochial and short-sighted.

The industry and governments kept telling themselves that if everyone else (British Columbians, Americans, among others) understood how much they needed Alberta's bitumen oil, that opposition to its development and export would melt.

They have consistently been wrong in this view. Unless the industry and province produce a serious plan to lower greenhouse gas emissions and treat the legitimate concerns of other jurisdictions seriously, bitumen oil will remain beset by all sorts of environmental and political challenges.

Mr. Prentice knows this and will say it. Will the industry, the province and the federal government understand and listen? They have been told this by others many times, but haven't heeded. They have consistently chosen salesmanship to statesmanship, with predictably dispiriting results.

As a federal politician and banker, Mr. Prentice has said little about health care and education, which together consume about three-quarters of any provincial budget. He'll be asked plenty of questions about these and many other very, very local issues as candidate and premier.

Mr. Prentice needs to rebuild the party, refurbish its finances, bring order to a government that went off the rails, demonstrate managerial competence, tell some hard truths and sketch a vision for a province that has been searching for one for a long time. A tall order, to say the least.

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