On October 7, 2011, Alison Merrilla Redford stood in front of a large crowd of her peers and power-brokers in the Legislature Rotunda as she was sworn-in as Alberta’s 14th Premier.
Having won the October 1, 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership contest with 37,101 votes to 35,491 for second-place Gary Mar, Ms. Redford became Alberta’s first woman Premier and fifth consecutive PC Party Premier. Leadership candidate Doug Horner, who would serve as her Finance Minister, played a large role in directing his supporters to vote for Ms. Redford on the final ballot vote.
There is little doubt that October 7, 2011 was a proud day for Alberta and one that, for many Albertans, represented hope for positive change in our province’s politics. We were told to expect immediate action on critical and a new style of government from the long-governing PC Party.
What a difference 2 years and 167 days can make.
Amid scandal, broken promises and a caucus revolt, Ms. Redford resigned as Premier and leader of the PC Party on March 23, 2014 and as the MLA for Calgary-Elbow on August 6, 2014. She was replaced by Deputy Premier Dave Hancock, who served until Jim Prentice was selected as PC Party leader on September 6, 2014.
Liberals announce by-election candidates
In more recent news, the Liberal Party announced its candidates in two Alberta by-elections. Robert Prcic will be that party’s candidate in the Calgary-Foothills by-election and David Khan in the Calgary-West by-election. Mr. Prcic was his party’s 2012 election candidate in Calgary-North West, where he earned 6% of the total vote.
A recent email from the Liberal Party revealed the party was prioritizing their resources behind candidates in two other by-elections – Susan Wright in Calgary-Elbow and Donna Wilson in Edmonton-Whitemud.
The strength of any long-ruling political party is the ability to reinvent itself under new leaders and changing circumstances. After 43-years in power, Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Association has successfully rebranded itself under five leaders, in many cases by attacking the political record of its previous leadership.
Alberta’s seventh PC Party Premier, Jim Prentice, set about this week distancing himself from some of the more unpopular decisions made by the government when it was led by his predecessor, Alison Redford.
Former Premier Dave Hancock resigned from the Legislature, instead risk spending his final years in office without a seat at the cabinet tables.
Selling the fleet of government planes, a symbol of the entitlement of the previous regime, was a political no-brainer. Use of the government planes by the former Premier to fly from a vacation home Palm Springs and to long-weekends in Jasper, as well as ‘false passengers,’ shocked even the most cynical Albertans.
Forcing MLAs and government staff to use commercial airlines frees the government of reporting its own public flight logs, but does not solve the root problems of political entitlement inside the current government.
Cancelling the botched license plate redesign was an easy win. An obvious political ploy to remove the long-standing ‘Wild Rose Country‘ slogan from the back of every vehicle in Alberta, the great license plate debate was a strange distraction from the summer’s MLA travel and Skypalace scandals.
On the international front, Redford appointee Gary Mar, who was named Alberta’s envoy to Hong Kong after losing the 2011 PC leadership contest, is being replaced when his contract expires next year. Career diplomat Ron Hoffman will replace him.
But despite campaigning to “end entitlements”, Mr. Prentice has chosen former Ottawa colleagues Rob Merrifield and Jay Hill as Alberta envoys abroad. Mr. Merrifield will soon be Alberta’s representative in Washington D.C. and Mr. Hill, a Calgary-based lobbyist and co-chair of Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign, will be Alberta’s “Senior Representative in Saskatchewan, British Columbia, the North and to the New West Partnership.”
Proroguing the Legislature for a new fall session of the Legislature allows for a new Speech from the Throne and provided an opportunity for the government to ditch the unpopular Bill 9 and Bill 10.
The two bills, introduced by Mr. Horner, would have imposed without consultation, an overhaul Alberta’s public sector pensions. Thousands of public sector workers rallied against the bills, making backbench Tories nervous about the next election.
Next on the list, Mr. Prentice is expected to make an announcement about the status of Red Deer’s Michener Centre today. Given the theme of this week’s announcements, it would not be surprising to hear the new leader reverse, or slow down, the facility’s closure.
Undoing some of the previous leader’s unpopular policies will steal away some of Wildrose opposition leader Danielle Smith‘s key talking points, but it will not be enough. CBC reported yesterday that Alberta’s chief medical examiner, Anny Sauvageau, is alleging political and bureaucratic interference in the independence of her office. And questions remains about irregularities in the PC leadership vote that selected Mr. Prentice on September 6.
And, despite the attempts to distance himself from the previous leader, the main thrust of Mr. Prentice’s government – promoting pipelines and the oil sands abroad – remains the same.
White-washing Ms. Redford’s time in office might be enough to help the Tories win the next election, but, like other world parties that have held near uncontested power for decades, many of the serious problems facing the PC Party and its government are deeper than any one leader.
As he prepared to be sworn-in as the 16th Premier of Alberta at Government House today, Jim Prentice aimed to project the image of a leader who is in command and in control of the situation. And today’s tightly controlled cabinet shuffle achieved that goal. Unlike previous cabinet shuffles, the news around today’s appointments was tightly sealed, with no leaks to the media to spoil Mr. Prentice’s opening day as Premier.
But did Mr. Prentice really give Albertans the change he promised with this cabinet shuffle? There are a few new faces in top positions and two unelected cabinet ministers from outside the Legislative Assembly, but at least fifteen of the twenty cabinet ministers previously served in the cabinets of Premier Alison Redford or Dave Hancock.
Without appointing a larger group of unelected cabinet ministers, he had little choice but to draw on the current pool of PC MLAs. If Albertans really want to see change in their government, they will have to do what people in every other province do from time to time: elect a new party to form government.
Viewed as having the endorsement of Corporate Calgary’s Oil Executives, Mr. Prentice’s choices for cabinet sends a message that the construction and expansion of oil sands pipelines will remain a priority for the Progressive Conservatives.
As well as being Premier, Mr. Prentice takes on the role of Aboriginal Affairs and Intergovernmental Affairs, both important roles when dealing with the construction of Enbridge’s proposed Northern Gateway Pipeline through northern British Columbia and the TransCanada Energy East Pipeline to New Brunswick.
The Northern Gateway Pipeline, which would pump raw bitumen from Alberta’s oil sands to the port city of Kitimat, is facing stiff opposition in Alberta’s neighbouring province, especially from First Nations and environmental groups. Before entering the PC Party leadership race, Mr. Prentice worked for Enbridge as an envoy to B.C.’s First Nations communities.
Teresa Woo-Paw, the two-term MLA from north Calgary, is now the Associate Minister for Asia-Pacific Relations, an important position as the proposed pipeline would send Alberta’s raw bitumen to be refined and processed in Asia (likely in the People’s Republic of China).
How Mr. Prentice and Ms. Woo-Paw approach Alberta’s trade relations with Asian countries will also seal the fate of former cabinet minister Gary Mar, who was appointed as Alberta’s representative in Hong Kong after he was defeated in the 2011 Progressive Conservative leadership contest.
Expenses related to Mr. Mar’s patronage appointment have been harshly criticized by the opposition parties.
During Ms. Redford’s time as Premier, the Government of Alberta expanded trade operations in Asia, operating offices in China, Taiwan, Japan and South Korea. A new trade office was opened last year in Singapore and another will soon open in Mumbai, India.
Third-term Peace River MLA Frank Oberle is now Alberta’s Energy minister. It is unclear how Mr. Oberle will approach the role differently than his predecessors, but his connections to northern British Columbia may play a role in the government’s focus on Enbridge’s Northern Gateway Pipeline. Mr. Oberle’s father, Frank Oberle Sr. was the Member of Parliament for Prince George-Peace River from 1972 to 1993, serving as Minister of Forestry under Prime Minister Brian Mulroney.
Serving as the defacto junior energy minister, Calgary MLA Kyle Fawcett was appointed as Environment & Sustainable Resource Development. Prone to embarrassing outbursts, Mr. “Leaky” Fawcett’s appointment suggests that Mr. Prentice might not be serious about tackling climate change and environmental issues linked to natural resource development.
The Auditor General reported in July that the Alberta Government has not been monitored its climate change targets and that its expensive carbon capture program is nowhere near meeting its targets for emission reductions. I sincerely hope that Mr. Fawcett sees his role as environment minister as more than a public relations activity for the government’s oil sands and pipeline expansion agenda.
On the environment and energy file, actions will speak louder than cabinet appointments.
Unelected Cabinet Ministers
Mr. Prentice handed the helm of two very important ministries to individuals who have never been elected to the Alberta Legislature. Former Edmonton Mayor Stephen Mandel, 69, and former Saskatchewan cabinet minister Gordon Dirks, 67, were appointed to cabinet as Minister of Health and Minister of Education.
Mr. Mandel remains popular among many Edmontonians, and is expected to run in a by-election in Edmonton-Whitemud, the southwest Edmonton constituency made vacant following Mr. Hancock’s resignation last week. His tendency to show thin-skinwhen he does not get his way may prove challenging when having to compromise with his new cabinet and caucus colleagues, or his political opponents.
Mr. Dirks’ affiliations with a socially conservative evangelical church have raised the ire of his critics, who worry these views may impact his support of secular public education in Alberta. The appointment of the former Calgary Board of Education trustee and 1980s Saskatchewan politician was unexpected, to say the least.
It is suspected that Mr. Dirks will run for the PC Party nomination in the impending Calgary-Elbow by-election, triggered by Ms. Redford’s departure from political life. The nomination is also being contested by long-time PC Party activist Pat Walsh.
Who’s not welcome in Prentice’s cabinet?
Thomas Lukaszuk, Fred Horne, Doug Griffiths, Ken Hughes, Sandra Jansen are all names that many Albertans have become familiar with over the past few years. These former senior cabinet ministers will now occupy seats in the backbenches (and have their offices relocated from prime real estate in the Legislature Building to the aging and stuffy Legislature Annex).
Also demoted were former Finance minister Doug Horner, who will take on the role of “trade advisor” for the Premier and former International Affairs minister Cal Dallas, who will now serve as a “Legislative Secretary” for intergovernmental relations.
The resignation of Mr. Hancock last week took many political watchers by surprise. I am told by sources in the PC Party that Premier Hancock was informed by his party’s new leader that he would not be appointed to cabinet if he chose to remain as an MLA.
“After two weeks with me as the premier, there will be no doubts in anyone’s minds that this a time of renewal and a time of change. Put your seat belts on.” – Jim Prentice speaking with Roger Kingkade and Rob Breakenridge on September 9, 2014 on News Talk 770.
Wearing your seat belt while driving in a motor vehicle is always a good idea, but in this context, it may not cure the political whiplash endured by Albertans over the past two years.
The interview was a rough start to a mixed week for Jim Prentice, who is in the midst of transitioning into the Premier’s office and is expected to be sworn-in next week. He had positive first meetings with Edmonton mayor Don Iveson and Calgary mayor Naheed Nenshi. And his rounds of media interviews early in the week were an introduction to many Albertans who are unfamiliar with Mr. Prentice and a departure from his predecessor, who became notorious for avoiding the legislature press gallery.
If his first week of transitioning into the Premier’s Office is going smoothly, the same might not be the case for his first week as leader of the 43-year governing Progressive Conservative Party. Mr. Prentice is already having to deal with allegations about PC MLA Sohail Quadri’s role in accessing voting PIN numbers in last week’s leadership vote and PC MLA David Xiao’s ties to the government-grant funded yet allegedly non-existent “McClung Family Association.”
Cabinet Shuffle next week
Much of the mainstream media coverage this week focused on speculation that Mr. Prentice could appoint individuals from outside the legislature to what is expected to be a smaller provincial cabinet.
As the rumours fly, three names have been widely speculated as prospective outside appointments – AIMco CEO Leo DeBeaver, Conservative MP James Rajotte and former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. Mr. Mandel is currently serving on Mr. Prentice’s transition team and endorsed his candidacy in the PC leadership race earlier this summer.
It is expected that any cabinet ministers appointed from outside the Assembly would be required to run in by-elections alongside Mr. Prentice, who currently does not hold a seat in the Alberta Legislature.
As I wrote last week, appointing cabinet ministers from outside the Legislature is not entirely unheard of in Canadian politics but it does come with some risks. Take for example Quebec Premier Bernard Landry, who appointed David Levine as a junior health minister in 2002 only to see him lose a by-election shortly afterward. The defeated candidate resigned from cabinet the next day.
While he may choose to include new talent from outside the PC Caucus, Mr. Prentice will still need to choose the bulk of his cabinet ministers from inside the current PC caucus. And his picks became slimmer yesterday as former Energy minister Ken Hughes announced that he will not seek re-election as MLA for Calgary-West.
New Senior Staff
Mr. Prentice announced that former Liberal MLA Mike Percy will be his Chief of Staff and Patricia Misutkawill be his Principal Secretary. Both could bring a stronger Edmonton-perspective to Calgarian Mr. Prentice’s inner circle and appear to be competent choices for the roles.
Dr. Percy is the former Dean of Business at the University of Alberta and served as the MLA for Edmonton-Whitemud from 1993 to 1997 (defeating rookie PC candidate Dave Hancock in 1993). He served as the Official Opposition Finance Critic for much of his time in the Legislature. It is suspected that Dr. Percy would have been appointed as Finance Minister if the Liberals, led by Laurence Decore, had won the 1993 election.
Ms. Misutka is the former Chief of Staff to Mr. Mandel and was one of four co-chairs of Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign. After Mr. Mandel’s retirement, she worked as a Senior Advisor with the Canadian Strategy Group, a government relations company run by long-time PC Party insiders Hal Danchilla and Michael Lohner.
With one day left before the vote, Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Ric McIver’s campaign took to the radio airwaves, attacking frontrunner Jim Prentice for being “an insider.” It was an strange move for Mr. McIver, as the general public appears largely disinterested in the contest and the deadline to purchase memberships has already passed.
While Mr. McIver said he remains committed to the PC Party and this government, whether he wins or loses, it was not the kind of move made by someone who wants to impress the new boss.
Although he is not an MLA, Mr. Prentice does have the support of 50 PC MLAs and a vast network of party insiders. He has also been active in the PC Party at the federal and provincial levels since the 1980s, including as a candidate in the 1986 election. Despite his large network of supporters inside the PC Party, membership sales are said to be significantly lower than in previous leadership races – some insiders say turnout could be as low as 25,000 votes (compared to more than 144,000 in 2006).
The after-effects of Alison Redford’s resignation and two years of scandal plagued government have overshadowed the summer-time leadership race to chose Albertas next premier. Anti-Gay parades, term-limits, free memberships, misuse of government airplanes, the Skypalace Penthouse and a $20,000 cell phone bill were the most interesting features of this campaign.
The leadership candidates spoke in platitudes and took little opportunity to actually debate their ideas for Alberta’s future. Comfortable in Alberta’s oil wealth, we did not witness the PC Party have any real debate the future of Alberta’s natural resources, environment, schools, health care system or cities.
Even the short premiership of Edmonton MLA Dave Hancock was overshadowed by the record of his predecessor. Under other circumstances, Mr. Hancock could have excelled as Premier, but he spent most of his short time as premier attempting to provide stability to a damaged government.
The once unstoppable PC Party is still powerful but now aged and antiquated. And while the long-governing PCs deserve to be defeated, it would be foolish to underestimate them. The PC Party may have long forgotten how to win an election but they do know not to lose.
On Saturday, September 6, if his opponents, Mr. McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk, are able to deny Mr. Prentice a first ballot win, a second vote will be held on September 20. While this scenario is not impossible, it feels unlikely. The PC establishment appears to have done everything in its power to ensure Mr. Prentice’s smooth victory.
Soon after Mr. Prentice becomes PC Party leader, he will need to build a new cabinet. It is widely expected that he will promote loyal supporters – like PC MLAs Manmeet Bhullar and former leadership candidate Ken Hughes – into prominent promotions. It is also suspected that current ministers, like Finance minister Doug Horner, Health minister Fred Horne, and anti-bullying minister Sandra Jansen – all closely associated with Ms. Redford – may find themselves sitting out of cabinet.
Overall, with 25 MLAs now in cabinet, it will be challenging for Mr. Prentice to create a new cabinet seating plan from the current PC caucus.
Rumours have begin to circulate that Mr. Prentice could appoint a group of cabinet ministers from outside the Assembly, and ask them to run in a series of by-elections in the fall. Mr. Prentice will need to become an MLA, and an impressive slate of by-election candidates could help bring some much-needed new talent into the PC caucus.
Calgary MLA Neil Brown already said he would vacate his Calgary-Mackay-Nose Hill constituency for Mr. Prentice to run in a by-election. PC MLA David Xiao and Independent MLA Len Webber are seeking federal Conservative Party nominations and may be interested in having the support of the new premier. And Calgary-Elbow, the constituency vacated by Ms. Redford, is in need of a by-election.
Retired Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel suggested this week that he would consider running as a PC candidate if Mr. Prentice were premier. It may be stretch to believe that the 69 year old Mr. Mandel would jump back into politics (or be a breath of fresh air), but he would bring name recognition to the PC caucus.
Holding a series of by-elections would be a high-risk and high-reward strategy, because any loses could wound the new premier just as he leaves the starting gate. But if it paid off, it could help breath some new life into a 43-year old PC government that appears intent on defeating itself, or at least give Mr. Prentice a fighting chance before facing the Wildrose Party in the next election.
With an impending by-election expected to be called before the end of the year, politics in Calgary-Elbow are heating up.
Days before the PC Party chooses a new leader, Calgary-Elbow PC constituency association president Marina Mason announced her resignation.
Long-time partisan activist Pat Walsh has announced his plans to seek the PC Party nomination in that constituency. On his website, Mr. Walsh declares that he is willing to represent the constituency as a Government MLA “in the interim until the 2016 election is called,” when which he states he “will then step down.” I am not sure what to make of this strategy.
Alberta Party leader Greg Clark announced today that he will once again put his name on the ballot in this constituency. He ran there in the 2012 provincial election.
Spending a few days in another province can sometimes give you a different perspective on important national issues. Spending the last week in British Columbia served as a good reminder to this political watcher about how emotional the debate around pipelines and the Oilsands are in Alberta’s neighbouring province.
While I am sure opinion is divided in B.C., I lost count of how many times I spotted “Stop the Pipelines” spray painted across concrete walls or embankments in Vancouver. And it was not just graffiti, the neighbours in the respectable neighbourhood I called home for the weekend even had anti-pipeline signs planted on their front lawns.
Back to Alberta politics, Mr. Prentice announced that his leadership campaign raised $1.8 million, which should not be too surprising. As favourite son of downtown Calgary and the front-runner in this contest, Mr. Prentice was expected to bring in the corporate dollars.
Earlier this year, Mr. Prentice warmed up his campaign as the committee chair for the PC Party’s Calgary fundraising dinner in May 2014. The PC Party has never really had trouble raising money, their biggest challenge is that the opposition Wildrose Party is raising just as much (and mostly in small donations from individuals, rather than large corporate donations).
Former deputy premier and PC leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk has had a rough week. First, he changed his tune on a $20,000 cell phone bill racked up while he was on vacation in Poland and Israel, now saying that he was taking an emergency call from a cabinet minister, who was in the midst of family dispute. Then, it was revealed that Mr. Lukaszuk had quietly reimbursed the government for $1,400 worth of flights on the government planes in which he brought his daughter.
Mr. Lukaszuk was a harsh critic of former Premier Alison Redford when it was revealed she had misused government planes, including taking her daughter on flights.
Human Services minister Manmeet Bhullardenied allegations that he offered “dirt” on Mr. Lukaszuk to the opposition parties and that he was the source of the leak. Mr. Bhullar is co-chairing Mr. Prentice’s leadership campaign and is expected to earn a big cabinet promotion if his candidate wins the leadership race on September 6.
Meanwhile, Edmonton mayor Don Iveson says that time is long overdue for the big cities and the provincial government to have a “grown-up conversation” about funding how we build our cities. In Calgary, popular mayor Naheed Nenshihas given Mr. Prentice, Mr. Lukaszuk and Ric McIver low grades on municipal issues, saying that none of the PC leadership candidate have outlined any significant vision for Alberta’s cities.
The Wildrose Party is trying to distance itself from offensive Conservative Member of Parliament Rob Anders. The party is denying it issued an endorsement after a robocall broadcast to Conservative supporters in the Bow River riding included an endorsement from former Wildrose leader and MLA Paul Hinman.
Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and Strathmore-Brooks Wildrose MLA Jason Hale issued statements late last week denying any connections to Mr. Anders’ campaign. Here is Ms. Smith’s statement:
“While individual Wildrose members may choose to support individual nomination contestants for federal Conservative nominations, Wildrose as a party is neither endorsing nor assisting any nomination contestant in the Bow River electoral district.
No nomination contestant in Bow River can claim the official or unofficial endorsement of the Wildrose Party.
We encourage Albertans who are interested in politics to inform themselves about party nominations and participate in democracy and we wish all the nomination contestants the best of luck.”
In 1971, The Jackson 5 were topping the billboard charts and Peter Lougheed‘s Progressive Conservatives were just starting what has become an uninterrupted 43-year reign as Alberta’s governing party. Recent messaging from the PC Party have certainly drawn inspiration from the band’s famous song – I Want You Back – as the PC Party tries to convince its former members, and former supporters, that all they need is one more chance.
Under the subject line “We want you back!,” an email sent to PC Party supporters over the weekend from party executive director Kelley Charlebois begged former members to renew their memberships to vote in the September 6 leadership vote.
“We’ve seen some upsetting revelations over the past weeks, and we are just as disappointed as you are,” Mr. Charlebois wrote. The email smelled desperate and gave a peek into how much the recent scandals and fiascos have rocked the long-governing party.
Asking for a second chance, former PC candidate Brian Henninger does not believe that voters should take out their frustration on the new premier in an upcoming by-election. “I don’t care what message you want to send to the premier, don’t do it with your vote,” Mr. Henninger told the Calgary Herald. Mr. Henninger was the PC candidate in the 2007 Calgary-Elbow by-election. With former Premier Alison Redford‘s resignation two weeks ago, there will be another by-election held in the same constituency. Voters may not be so kind to the next PC candidate in the upcoming by-election.
Hoping that they will forget what happened and let his political career live again, Finance Minister Doug Horner wrote a long-winded and typo-ridden letter to his PC caucus colleagues, claiming that he is not responsible for the gross misuse of government planes.
While the fleet of government planes is managed by the Finance Department, Mr. Horner claims he was blind to Ms. Redford’s extensive and allegedly personal use of the planes.
A large group of disgruntled backbench PC MLAs are said to be furious with Mr. Horner and on the verge of forcing him to resign from the Finance Ministry.
Mr. Horner’s letter reminded me of the hastily written letter sent by then-junior health minister Raj Sherman to his PC caucus colleagues in 2009 (he was kicked out of the PC caucus shortly afterward). Meanwhile Dr. Sherman, now leading the opposition Liberals, has launched a petition calling on Mr. Horner to resign from cabinet.
When the “Skypalace” scandal was uncovered through a CBC investigation, Infrastructure MinisterWayne Drysdale told the media he cancelled the project in late 2012. Former Infrastructure Minister Ric McIver said he stopped the Skypalace in January 2014. And Deputy Minister Marcia Nelsonconfirmed to the Public Accounts Committee in May 2014 that Mr. McIver issued the cancellation of the residential suite. It is unclear who in the PC Government ordered the secret construction on the penthouse to continue.
It is yet to be seen how many second chances Albertans will give the PCs, but the opposition parties may be starting to feel optimistic about their chances in the next election.
And for those of you with the lyrics stuck in your head, you’re very welcome…
The leak was a draft copy of a report Auditor General Merwan Saher is expected to release in August 2014 and will also include a review of the former premier’s flights to South Africa and Palm Springs.
Two years ago, PC candidates led by Ms. Redford promised a new era of open and transparent government. It appears that the fake passengers were not the only fabrication.
Is it possible that the three men vying to lead the PC Party did not know about the false flyers?
Both insiders, Thomas Lukaszuk served as Ms. Redford’s Deputy Premier and Ric McIver was Transportation Minister from May 2012 to December 2013. While they have denied knowledge of the flights, it is strange that at the very least these two senior cabinet minister had not even heard rumours about the Premier’s alleged fictional bookings and questionable travel habits.
But what of Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose department is responsible for the Alberta government’s fleet of airplanes? Surely someone within the Finance Department would have been aware of these alleged ghost travellers? Mr. Horner, along with 50 other PC MLAs and nearly every PC Party insider, is supporting Mr. Prentice’s bid for the PC Party leadership.
Mr. Prentice, who appears to only speak in generalizations and avoids details in all his public announcements, issued a statement on his Facebook Page in response to the allegations. “Albertans do not need excuses from those who were at the table when these decisions were made,” Mr. Prentice’s Facebook statement said.
Nearly everyone who would have been sitting around the cabinet table when these phantom flyers were on the books are now endorsing Mr. Prentice.
His opponent, Mr. Lukaszuk, was much more harsh on Ms. Redford, who remains the PC MLA for Calgary-Elbow. The former Deputy Premier said he would have his former boss thrown out of the PC Caucus and would ask a retired judge to investigate the allegations (Justice Minister Jonathan Denis, also supporting Mr. Prentice, today asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to decide whether there should be an investigation).
This leads me back to my initial question: Which of the three leadership candidates would make the best Leader of the Opposition?
For the past four decades, this would have been a nonsensical question. But in 2014, the Tories face a relentlessly aggressive Wildrose opposition flush with cash and preparing for an election. There is an increasingly real possibility that the PC Party could be in opposition after the next election.
Mr. Prentice served in the Conservative Official Opposition benches in Ottawa for two years during the dying days of Paul Martin’s Liberal government, a time which may oddly familiar similar to the current politics in Alberta. An ambitious politician, Mr. Prentice does not strike me as someone who would be interested in remaining in the opposition benches if the PC Party were to lose the next election.
Mr. Lukaszuk is well-known for his partisan attack dog-style in Question Period, and might thrive in the opposition benches. Mr. McIver served as the unofficial opposition to Mayor Dave Bronconnier on Calgary City Council, but, like Mr. Lukaszuk, he has no support from his PC MLA colleagues.
In light of recent revelations, perhaps some time spent in the opposition benches could inject a much needed dose of humility into Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives, who have become very comfortable with the trappings of political power. Despite coming within a hair of losing the last election, the Tories act as if they are an invincible force. This recent string of scandals may help prove that the PCs are not invincible.
In 53 days, members of Alberta’s Progressive Conservative Party will vote to choose their next leader and the next Premier of Alberta.
Unlike previous PC leadership races, where Albertans of all political-inclinations were excited to participate in the vote to directly choose the next Leader of the Natural Governing Party, there does not appear to be any sign of overwhelming interest in 2014. This year’s PC leadership race, held less than three years since the last one, appears to be far away from the minds of most Albertans.
The overwhelming perception that former federal politician and bank executive Jim Prentice is the sure-bet in the race has certainly contributed to the disinterest. Mr. Prentice’s campaign has the backing of the party’s powerful establishment and boasts a long-list of MLA endorsements – 49 of 59 PC MLAs, including recent additions St. Albert MLA Stephen Khan, Tourism minister Richard Starkeand Anti-bullying ministerSandra Jansen.
Mr. Prentice’s campaign succeeded early in the race in chasing away his most serious potential rivals, like Finance minister Doug Horner, current Energy minister Diana McQueen and former Energy minister Ken Hughes, out of the race. He now faces former cabinet ministers Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk, who have no support in the caucus (other than themselves).
On the ideas front, there has not been much to discuss. Two months after Mr. Prentice entered the leadership race, it still remains unclear what he stands for. He speaks in vague generalizations about “keeping Alberta strong,” “pursuing commons sense policies,” “global markets and long-term capital investment” and “an end to sweet heart government contracts for political staff,” but provides little detail.
Unlike the 2011 leadership contest, during which the PC Party organized public forums in each region of the province, there are no public debates scheduled for this contest. The lack of public venues for the candidates to engage with each other has made Mr. Prentice’s low-risk front-runner campaign hard to beat.
And without any public debates, there is little opportunity for PC Party members or any interested members of the general public to challenge the candidates into providing more details about what they would do as premier.
While two years of embarrassment and scandal have seriously damaged the reputation of the 43-year old government, the PC Party is still the party in power and will sell a lot of memberships. But the key number will be how many of these members actually vote in the leadership selection (144,289 voted in 2006 and 78,176 voted in 2011).
Unlike previous races, where anyone could show up on the day of the vote and buy a membership, this year’s vote will be held online and memberships sales will be cut off 36 hours before the vote is held.
Any voter apathy around Mr. Prentice’s front-runner status could help his opponents. However unlikely, it is not impossible to foresee a scenario where one of his opponents could capitalize on perception that Mr. Prentice’s win is a forgone conclusion. A low-voter turnout on the September 6 first ballot vote could actually help another candidate with a more motivated base of support.
Mr. McIver’s reputation as Calgary’s Dr. No still carries some cache among Calgary conservatives. And, despite condemnations from media columnists and liberals, his association with Calgary Street Church and the March for Jesus could have actually solidified his support among social conservatives (who have the motivation to vote).
Some political watchers suspect that the PC Party is purposely downplaying the leadership race, and there may be truth to this. The establishment of the long-governing party is eager to avoid any controversy that would result in the defeat of the establishment’s chosen candidate, like happened in 1992, 2006 and 2011.
So, while we may spend the next 53 days watching a leadership race devoid of excitement and substance, we can only hope that this boring leadership race produce some interesting results.
It is not uncommon for government leaders to have advance staff, but in this case, like so many of the decisions that led to Ms. Redford’s downfall, it appears to have been done in secret (the cost of the staffer and their travel was not included in the publicly available travel expenses disclosures).
If advance work was indeed required, and there are reasons why this could be the case, it is hard to understand why the Premier’s Office would not simply hire the services of a consultant in the country or city Ms. Redford was planning to visit. Was it really necessary to hire a dedicated employee for this task?
Similar comments were made by Ms. Redford during her run for the PC Party leadership and during the 2012 election. Soon after, the PC government turned on public sector workers, threatening to legislate the contracts of teachers and public service employees and attacking their pensions. Mr. Prentice will need to follow his words with actions.
Mr. Prentice also said he will accelerate the construction of new school buildings, a promise that was originally made by Ms. Redford, but recently downplayed by Infrastructure Minister Wayne Drysdale last week. In a stunning admission, Mr. Drysdale told the media that the P3 (Public-Private Partnership) option for building the new schools was too expensive.
But when it comes to governance of the education system, it is not clear what role Mr. Prentice believes locally elected school boards and municipalities should play in this decision making process, as they face intense growth pressures to raise new schools and shutter others.
Another prime target for a demotion in Mr. Prentice’s cabinet is Finance Minister Doug Horner, whose budget reporting structure was today the target of an open-letter from a group of retired Tory politicians.