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 Starke and Anti-bullying minister Sandra Jansen.
With their party lagging behind the Wildrose (and the NDP) in some polls, PC MLAs are nervous that a divisive leadership race will further damage their party.
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.