Low turnout, lack of interest overshadows Prentice’s win
Premier Jim Prentice Alberta PC leadership race

Alberta’s next Premier, Jim Prentice, delivered his victory speech with his wife Karen at his side.

The  atmosphere was noticeably subdued as I walked into the large hall at Northlands Expo Centre that hosted the Progressive Conservative’s leadership event. It was 6:45 pm and there were probably 300 loyal party supporters scattered across the hall, which looked like it could comfortably fit 2,000.

By the time the results were announced  at 7:36 pm by PC Party president Jim McCormick, the crowd appeared to have grown to around 400. Crowded around the stage at the end of the cavernous hall, supporters of former bank executive and retired federal politician Jim Prentice cheered when it was announced that he received 17,963 votes, 77% of the votes cast in the two day online and phone-in vote.

It is a strong mandate from PC Party members, and would have been a landslide if not for the incredibly low voter turnout. Only 23,386 PC Party members bothered to vote in the 43-year governing party’s latest leadership contest, much lower than the 78,176 who voted in the party’s 2011 leadership contest and the 144,289 who voted in 2006. I am told that around a total of 42,000 memberships were sold in this race, resulting in a 54% turnout.

Premier Jim Prentice Alberta Leadership Race Vote

Jim Prentice scrums with the media after his victory speech.

While pundits and politicos predicted for months that there would be a low turnout, 23,386 is shockingly low, especially considering Mr. Prentice publicly set a benchmark to sell 100,000 memberships. Interest in the race to replace former Premier Alison Redford was dismal, and the other candidates – Thomas Lukaszuk with 2,681 votes and Ric McIver with 2,742 votes – were unable to generate much opposition to Mr. Prentice’s well-financed and insider-supported campaign.

Despite the excitement of Mr. Prentice’s supporters in the crowd, there was a weariness in the air and a feeling that even the PC Party’s most loyal activists are tired. Many of them are becoming aware of how hard the next election could be to win. The Wildrose leads in the polls province-wide and support for the New Democrats has grown in Edmonton since the last election. And while support for the long-governing Tories has not completely collapsed, it was hard to walk away from this event without the feeling that the PCs are at their weakest.

Mr. Prentice’s victory speech was not remarkable. In fact, it was boring and forgetful, but maybe a little boring is what the PC Party needs. After two years of endless scandals, backstabbing and controversy, I am sure most PC MLAs are looking for stability. And while Mr. Prentice is nothing close to exciting, he is confident and could be a stable hand who can attract new talent to the party.

The politicos and MLAs I spoke with were glad the leadership contest is over and hope to put the technical irregularities of the PC Party’s contracted online voting system behind them. Although it appears there are PC members who were unable to vote or even able to vote twice because of technical glitches, it is unlikely that Mr. Prentice’s majority would have been drastically altered.

After the celebrations die down, Mr. Prentice and his team of advisors will begin the process of transitioning into the Premier’s Office. The new Premier is expected to seek a by-election soon (it is suspected that more than one by-election could be called) and once he is sworn-in as Premier, a cabinet shuffle will occur.

Aside from term-limits for MLAs, Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign largely stayed away from details or promises, a point that no PC Party supporter I spoke with in the convention hall seemed worried about. In fact, some praised the lack of details and promises as a virtue and a good campaign strategy.

“By not making any promises, he won’t break any promises,” said one PC supporter.

So, as this unexciting summer leadership race comes to an end, it is difficult to say what a new Premier will mean for Alberta. While most Albertans wait and see, I am sure many of the loyal Tories who spent their evening in that large convention hall are hoping this fall will bring calm, stability, and maybe a little boring to their long-governing party.