Jim’ll fix it

Prentice quits the bank to clean house in Alberta

So Jim Prentice looks all set to become the next premier of Alberta. Alison Redford stepped down about a month ago, and the race to become her permanent replacement at the head of the province’s Progressive Conservatives has remained in a painful state of suspense ever since. It became obvious fairly early on that the PC cabinet and caucus were keenly aware of their relative shortage of royal jelly. No one, aside from former Progressive Conservative MP and Alberta Health Services boss Ken Hughes, was willing to declare until all were sure that no white knight was arriving from outside the ranks. (Younger readers: “Progressive Conservative MP” was a thing in the old days.)

Retired Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel may be clad in somewhat battered armour, but he might have done in a pinch. Advisors and friends said he was serious about the job. He popped up on an arresting cover for Edmonton’s Avenue magazine. Not a normal move for your everyday “retiree” with no further ambitions.

Then, the unexpected announcement: Mandel was begging off. What chased him away? An even brighter, whiter knight? When PC MLAs—some of them obvious potential leadership candidates—started spontaneously giving interviews speculating about what shampoo that adorable Jim Prentice uses, it looked like a bit of a clue. The Calgary Herald confirmed Monday that Prentice is in, printing anonymous “authorized” quotes that sound not unlike Jim Prentice himself. No one has yet seen fit to contradict their story.

Prentice, who held three different portfolios in Stephen Harper’s federal ministry and then jumped to senior executive work at CIBC, appears to have significant caucus support already. Finance Minister Doug Horner said he was holding fire on his own candidacy until Prentice’s intentions were known, so one would have to think Horner is now out. People were just starting to talk about young Manmeet Bhullar, who has handled a child-welfare scandal adequately as Human Services Minister, but Bhullar pre-endorsed Prentice in glowing terms.

The party does not want a coronation: that’s one of those universal maxims that has no source and no firm evidence, something people generally blurt out without a millisecond’s thought, but the Alberta PCs are in rough financial shape and could use a summer of vigorous membership sales and activity. Unfortunately, the party, rather rueful over the results of recent non-coronations, set the entry fee for the leadership race at $50,000. That is a pretty big hit to absorb just for the sake of keeping up appearances.

Prentice enjoys plenty of respect among important occupational groups—he is probably the single most popular financial executive in the country. His long, subtle campaign to be perceived as the human face of Harper Conservatism has been successful, despite a dearth of trademark accomplishments as a federal minister. Red Tories would guzzle the man’s bathwater, perhaps for no better reason than he was a Conservative Environment Minister and he did not try to physically eat the entire environment during his brief time in that posting.

No doubt someone else besides Hughes will clamber into the ring. But it is hard to see precisely how other contenders would position themselves. Is Prentice too conservative? Not conservative enough? The planned nervous breakdown currently being executed by the opposition Wildrose Party makes such a judgment even more difficult. How do you outflank Prentice AND prepare to lead the PCs into the 2016 election?

If and when Prentice attracts a serious opponent, it will not be just because the party needs to avoid a coronation, but because it needs both a safety net and a little bit of Darwinian pressure on the messiah from Bay Street. Premier Redford had such a poor grasp of the political instincts of Albertans that her ineptitude verged, in the end, on contempt. Prentice has been remote from ordinary life in Alberta for a long time. If he bids for power, as she seemed to, with the mindset that the province just needs to be led by a better class of people at last, it will not go well.

He doesn’t need to flounder around in overalls. Alberta liked Peter Lougheed, and Peter Lougheed was as posh as it is possible to be west of Orillia. But the idea is to go for 19th-century-ranchman posh. Mothball the Armani. Prentice needs to be careful with taxpayers’ money, mindful of the axioms of enterprise, and leery of progressive crusades. You would expect a banker to be a natural at all this, but remember, he’s a Canadian banker.

Prentice would be well advised to oppose the ghastly Redford-Horner changes to budget reporting, complete with phony “surpluses”, that attracted the ire of Jim Dinning, the Auditor-General, and the C.D. Howe Institute. The public will also be wary of the bribery of public sector unions that characterized the governments of both Redford and Stelmach. It is not a coincidence that a major long-term deal with the provincial employees’ union, AUPE, was reached literally minutes after the Herald announced Prentice’s candidacy. This closes the most obvious avenue for a reprise of the foul Roman auction that decided the previous race.

Prentice just needs to convince voters that he still gets Alberta. (That doesn’t rule out big infrastructure or social projects, but it will be a while before he has the cash for those.) The sour notes are easy to avoid. If he has learned expensive habits in Ottawa and Toronto, they are at least not international-NGO habits.

But the past couple of PC leadership races have had somewhat mystifying dynamics. Dinning had all the strengths Prentice has, with a record of ministerial achievement in Alberta still second to none, and he came to grief in the leadership-contest environment anyway. The advent of open primaries was meant to make leadership races more like elections, and they are certainly intended to identify people who can win elections, but in Alberta, at least, they more closely resemble party nomination contests. Ethnic and institutional bloc votes are rounded up beneath the notice of the press; no seniors’ home or community centre is left unexploited. The caucus, as Alison Redford proved, is of small relevance.

Prentice probably has access to the tools of “ground game” in Calgary, but Edmonton is decisive. He will not have access to top Conservative Party of Canada talent, or to CPC data. He will probably win, assuming he does not start thinking too hard over the next 72 hours or so about how much money he’s giving up. But it is not so difficult to imagine him losing.

In a tangentially related story, Brian Mason announced Tuesday that he will step down in October as leader of Alberta’s New Democrats. (One surprising consequence: this fall, the Wildrose’s Danielle Smith will become the senior statesman among Alberta’s party leaders.) In Mason’s first election as leader (2004) he captured 10.2% of the province-wide vote. He leaves having raised that to a glorious 9.8% in 2012. Mason was a union organizer before entering politics, and he will be probably be replaced by labour lawyer Rachel Notley or labour organizer David Eggen. The baffling occult reasons you never hear about the Alberta NDP are probably becoming clear to you, but Mason was effective in the Assembly on consumer-type issues, which is to say that he represented the best, most useful side of the New Democracy.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.