Alberta's PC leadership race needs a new train of thought

Colby Cosh has two ideas that could shake up the Alberta PC leadership race

Jim Prentice

On Aug. 21, Jim Prentice announced portentously that he would be giving an “important speech” in his campaign for Alberta’s Progressive Conservative leadership. The important speech turned out to be a baffling disappointment. Spoiler alert: it was a plan for term limits in the Alberta legislature. It was greeted in a way that probably guarantees it will be forgotten quickly.

Indeed, the thought experiment created by Prentice’s announcement-of-an-announcement is far more interesting than the announcement itself. With a race for leadership of Confederation’s longest-serving political regime under way, what could a candidate announce that would really shake up Alberta politics and polarize his rivals?

I can think of two main choices. One is an Edmonton-Calgary bullet train. The idea has been bashed about a lot, and even costed, a little unconvincingly. It would grab the world’s attention, be a tremendous boon to business and social life, and serve as an impressive monument to Alberta’s can-do spirit and to 20 years of Conservative-led prosperity. It would probably even have some value as an answer to Americans who think of Alberta as a blackened death zone of ecological pestilence. “Can’t hear you, Leo DiCaprio, I’ve got a futuristic, environmentally sensible mode of transport to catch.”

Unfortunately, high-speed trains do not generally pay for themselves unless the lines are built in an urban network with many dispersed nodes, each ideally having millions of people. (Note: this is a long-winded way of saying “in Japan, or maybe China.”) Most everyone who has looked at the idea has concluded, with a sigh, that the Edmonton-Calgary corridor is decades away from being able to make it work.

No one talks about this, but if and when time does make a train more plausible, the capital may start to get cold feet awfully fast. Edmonton and Calgary are jealous twins. Modern-day Alberta governments have been successful at making sure they grow in astonishingly precise lockstep. Who knows what population shifts might result from suddenly putting Calgary neighbourhoods as close to the legislature or the University of Alberta as many metro Edmonton bedroom communities?

Edmonton’s politically influential airport authority, which closed the city’s downtown airport this year just as the world seems to be becoming quite fond of downtown airports, certainly would not like to be forced to surrender in its long war for international air routes. Needless to say, the space-age eco-suburb Edmonton was supposed to get in place of the lost airport is already being diminished in ambition—and in projected profitability. Anyway, the bullet train is off the table. If it stood even a slight chance, one of Prentice’s rival candidates would already be boosting it.

The other game-changing announcement that a PC leadership candidate could make would be a proposal for a provincial sales tax. Such a thing is usually dismissed as impossible in Alberta, despite economists’ sweet tooth for consumption taxes, and . . . well, it probably is impossible. But if it were going to happen, the way to do it would be to design the tax to be revenue-neutral to Albertans (while soaking the tourists); to promise a referendum in advance of its introduction (required by Alberta law anyway); and to wheel out the whole plan during a leadership campaign.

Again, if a sales tax were politically possible, we would have heard about one by now. Thomas Lukaszuk and Ric McIver sometimes seem to be playing it safe, perhaps with the thought that Prentice might be a short-term premier with other ambitions. His idea for term limits—a maximum of three terms for an MLA, and two for a premier—is not exactly designed to dispel that suspicion.

Prentice’s term-limits trial balloon, which received an immediate and merciless fusillade from constitutional experts, is a true enigma. Prentice has the political heritage of a Red Tory, and one of the Red Tory breed’s ordinary defining characteristics is exaggerated respect for accumulated wisdom in the corridors of power. Term limits, by contrast, are an idea that out-Reforms Reform. Even the stoutest agrarian populists often like their own MLA, so limits don’t have the kind of long-standing support in Alberta that an elected Senate does.

They’re certainly not as popular as MLA recall, speaking of attention-getting political ideas whose time might have come back around. In the ’90s the PCs found themselves voting down a private member’s bill on recall just about every year, and the bills were usually introduced by PC backbenchers. Does Prentice remember this history? If he believes in accountability, and thinks political careers shouldn’t be permanent, why didn’t he try that one on?

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