Paul Wells in Alberta: Could Jim Prentice actually lose?

It was supposed to be a coronation in Alberta. Paul Wells on how Jim Prentice got here, and whether he can prove the polls wrong
Alberta Premier Jim Prentice announces a 5 per cent wage cut to all cabinet ministers during a press conference in Edmonton, Alta., on Thursday, January 29, 2015. (JASON FRANSON/CP)
Photograph by Jason Franson
Photograph by Jason Franson

Paul Wells and Colby Cosh took Maclean’s readers’ questions about the Alberta election. Read the recap of their live-chat here. 

The modern Canadian political campaign is stalked by chaos and does everything possible to avoid it. Administering surprises rarely does a party’s leader any good, so his day is barricaded against surprise. Party leaders who try to do too much are punished with fatigue. They make silly mistakes they can never undo. So the typical campaign day is a work of minimalism, stripped to a few meticulously planned gestures and padded with downtime. A policy announcement in the morning: “This is what we will do if elected.” A photo op or two in the afternoon, cameras only, no reporters, to provide images that match the day’s message. A rally, usually at night but sometimes over lunch, to hearten campaign volunteers and give everyone else the impression that this laboriously constructed artifice, the modern Canadian political campaign, is a runaway train to glory.

Jim Prentice’s campaign for ratification by the people of Alberta as heir to a 43-year Progressive Conservative dynasty is a train to something, all right, but on the evidence of a Monday lunchtime rally at the Calgary Metropolitan Centre, it was kind of hard to tell what that destination might be.

Prentice has been leader of the once-mighty — still mighty? hard to say — Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta for seven months, a member of the Legislative Assembly for six, and has stood over the smoking ruin of what used to be his most dangerous opposition party, the Wildrose Party, for four. Nine members of the Wildrose caucus, including the party’s leader at the time, Danielle Smith, left that party to join Prentice’s PCs in November and December, proclaiming that there was no point running against this man who represented the culmination of all they had ever hoped to accomplish in politics.

Related reading: The last of Danielle Smith

Many of those floor-crossers, including Smith, then failed to win re-nomination as PC candidates, which seemed to tie up some loose ends rather nicely. Except that despite all the planning, there have been a few surprises—chief among them the macabre resurrection of Wildrose and a half-dozen consecutive polls from different firms showing the Prentice Conservatives running second, and sometimes, thanks to the plucky Alberta NDP, even third.

So here’s Jim Prentice on the campaign trail, and despite all the plans and all his legendary competence, he somehow finds himself running with his back to the wall, and Lord have mercy, have you ever seen such an awkward sight in your life.

“Let me be clear about this at the outset,” he told a few hundred Conservatives arrayed photogenically around him at the Metropolitan Centre. “Let me be clear in saying that we cannot do everything that everyone wants. We cannot do that. There are tough choices to be made. There are tough choices that need to be made.”

So far he had said three things, twice each, in five sentences. There’s a poetic form called a “villanelle” that relies for effect on dogged repetition of a few lines, as if the poet can’t get them out of his head or think of anything else to say. For the first time, I was watching a man improvise a villanelle about government services in public.

“And I would not try to convince anyone else . . . otherwise.” The pause reflected the realization, a beat too late, that the word “else” didn’t fit into the sentence he was not yet done speaking.

“Our plan requires tough choices, but we’ve done it,” he ground on. “We’ve done it in a realistic and responsible way.”

“Is he always this galvanizing?” I asked the dean of Calgary newspaper columnists, Don Braid.

“Oh, this is exceptionally good for him,” Braid said.

Facing Prentice, a woman who has been active in a dozen Conservative campaigns, both federal and provincial, was nodding strenuously and smiling determinedly, the way a mother does when her child is onstage at the school’s Christmas pageant and plainly not guaranteed to get all his lines out. Come on, Junior, we just need you to hold on until the three kings show up with the myrrh.

“You know, health care consumes 50 per cent of our provincial budget,” Prentice was saying. “Fifty per cent of your tax dollars are spent on the public health system. And one of the challenges is to find better ways and smarter ways to construct the facilities that we need. And we are working on that. And so these new styles and structures that we are talking about represent a flexible and an innovative and a forward-looking way to deal with the needs of our citizens. And so we are working at continually improving the way that we maximize the dollars of taxpayers that we spend.”

A few in the crowd stared longingly at a table where sandwiches and celery sticks lay under Saran wrap, tantalizingly out of reach.

“It is clear that we are not doing enough to maintain the public facilities that we already own. So that’s why we are tripling the budget in terms of the maintenance of the existing capital social infrastructure in this province, ladies and gentlemen.”

The applause that followed was the very illustration of the term “smattering.” I would soon learn that “ladies and gentlemen” is Prentice’s verbal cue to let a crowd know he’s delivered an applause line.

“I don’t think there is a single businessman or woman or community or citizen, frankly, who would disagree with the $4.8 billion that we propose to spend to keep our existing capital infrastructure in good shape, ladies and gentlemen.” More applause. “So that’s what we will do.

“Importantly, in Edmonton and Calgary, we will continue to build and finish the ring roads in these cities. There will be no delay in the construction of the Southwest Calgary Ring Road, ladies and gentlemen.” More applause now, and because he had said “ladies and gentlemen” three times in five sentences, a tentative chant of “Jim! Jim! Jim!” rose from the crowd.

“And so,” he said, wrapping up, a few minutes later. This was the moment to spread the mom-and-pop stuff thick, to conjure the cinematic swell of violins with vocabulary and tone, but awkwardly placed pauses made it hard to parse Prentice’s meaning. “And so we will work hard to fulfill the promise of an Alberta.”


“An Alberta that is guided by time-tested Conservative principles and a province that, to its core, believes in those principles. And understanding—and understanding that this has been, and always will be, a place.”


“A place where we respect common sense, and where we value and respect and rely on the common decency of the people of this province.”

In the audience, a small child started to cry.

“Those are the values that we seek to represent. And I could not be prouder to be campaigning in this province, to take this choice to the province, and to have this team of men and women at my side.”

With that, the speech was over, and the plastic wrap came off the veggie trays, and the partisans started to mill and ruminate on what they had seen. But Prentice and the assembled reporters stayed in place a few minutes longer for a brief media scrum.

Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters
Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

Most of the questions were about his budget. He spent months warning that falling oil prices had “blown a $7-billion hole” in the province’s public accounts. That’s why he needed to make tough choices, he kept saying, and why he needed to call an election a year ahead of schedule to secure his mandate to make those choices. It’s hard to shake the impression he planned all this long in advance. Extended pre-budget tour. Province-wide television address on March 24, to emphasize the stakes. Budget two days later. Election call 12 days after that, with the vote on May 5. All very brisk and businesslike.

The surprise is that nobody likes his budget. It purports $8.6 billion in spending cuts over three years, but it achieves that effect by holding the line on program spending and counting the spending that would have happened, if no government had made any choices, as if they were cuts. This is vexing to Albertans who see a $5-billion deficit as an urgent problem.

Prentice raised a plethora of taxes and fees to help pay the province’s way out of its hole, but he refuses to touch corporate taxes, because he is spooked by the prospect of investors skipping over Alberta for their next billion-dollar energy project, in favour of some more clement petro-state somewhere else. This array of taxes on you and your friends, but not on the C-Suite in Calgary’s office-tower jungle, has provoked populists on the left and right.

Related reading: The A to Z of the oil crash

And Prentice reintroduced a measure of progressivity to the income tax code, so that Albertans pulling down large incomes would be taxed more heavily than everyone else, ending the province’s decade-long love affair with flat taxation. This move does a fine job of demoralizing Conservatives who liked to believe the party of Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein was still defending some sort of unique vision of upward mobility and the value of an honest day’s work at any income level.

To Prentice, who has done the work and seen the charts and sat through the meetings, the choices he has made are perfectly reasonable. Visionary, even. That carpers like Brian Jean, the newly elected Wildrose leader, and Rachel Notley, the NDP leader of similarly fresh vintage, would dare to backseat-drive him gets under his skin. That the people of Alberta would let themselves be tempted by those alternatives makes him more than a little steamed, ladies and gentlemen.

What about Brian Jean’s plans for real cuts, much faster than the Conservative budget timetable provides? Madness. “Every single economist,” Prentice told the massed scribes, “every single economist that we spoke to told us, ‘Do this over three years. Because if you do it in one year you’ll tip the province into recession.’ ”

And yet still the people are tempted.

For what it’s worth, this campaign is now two weeks old, and as of Tuesday there hadn’t been a single poll showing the Prentice Conservatives in the lead. The consensus, not just at the Calgary rally but among every Albertan of any political stripe I quizzed during a week on the campaign trail, is that this information isn’t worth all that much, because the polls aren’t.

The one thing everyone in Alberta knows about Alberta politics is that the last time Albertans elected a government, in 2012, more than 20 polls from a bunch of different firms showed Wildrose, led by Danielle Smith, well ahead of the Conservatives under Alison Redford. Not a single poll showed the Conservatives ahead. They won the election anyway. There’s a good chance the polls weren’t even wrong, but that the real prospect of a Wildrose government moved about one voter in 15 from other parties to the Conservatives in the campaign’s final days.

Their exodus was sped along by the revelation, if you’ll excuse the term, that one of the party’s candidates, Allan Hunsperger, had said, in regard to Lady Gaga’s hit song Born This Way, “You can live the way you were born, and if you die the way you were born, then you will suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell, a place of eternal suffering.” Danielle Smith, a libertarian who was always an odd fit with the more hellfire-and-brimstone elements of the Wildrose base, thought hard about Hunsperger’s comments for a day and decided to condone them. Probably the wrong decision. Smith’s career never really recovered from her surprise election defeat, although her spectacular flameout of recent months probably could not have been predicted. But the effect is the same: the polls all said one thing and then something else happened. If there were an I Don’t Believe the Polls party running in this election, it would win in a landslide.

You’d have to be crazy to believe the polls. As I left the Metropolitan Centre I ran into Ric McIver, the congenial Conservative MLA for Calgary-Hays who lost to Naheed Nenshi in the mayoral election before losing to Prentice for the PC leadership. McIver knows what it’s like to be on the losing end of a bet, but he told me that after two weeks of door-knocking, “I think we’re going to be all right. Anything can happen. I don’t take anything for granted. People can lose, including me. But it felt worse in 2012 than it feels today.”

So yeah, you’d have to be crazy to believe the polls. But Alberta is a bit of a crazy place these days. For an unbeatable dynasty, the Alberta PCs have been demonstrating a noticeably high churn rate. Three men—Lougheed, Don Getty and Klein—led the party for a combined total of 41 years, beginning with Lougheed’s tenure in opposition in the mid-1960s. That stately tempo is a thing of the past. The party has seen three leaders—Ed Stelmach, Redford and Prentice—in only the last nine years. Stelmach raised energy royalties, bruising the party’s relationship with the oil industry, then lowered them again in an unsuccessful attempt to stem the outrage. Redford ran her office like an episode of Entourage, commissioning lavish renovations, running up her travel tab and berating those she deemed beneath her station. By the end, when her own caucus essentially ran her out of Edmonton, it wasn’t entirely clear what Redford hoped to do with public office if it wasn’t to live in a succession of ever-larger office suites.

Photograph by Jason Franson
Photograph by Jason Franson

Especially after Redford’s slapstick regime, Prentice must have seemed to Conservatives like a deliberate change of pace. A fit and youthful 58 years old, he has been floating in or near the higher altitudes of Canadian politics for most of the last decade and a half.

He comes from the clubbable Progressive Conservative side of Canadian conservatism, as opposed to the raffish and snarly Reform-Alliance side. Though he ran for the provincial Conservatives in 1986 (and managed to lose), almost all of his career since then has been at the federal level. It was not clear he retained any interest in the provincial party until he announced his candidacy to lead it.

He had a good shot at beating the Alliance’s nominee, the lawyer and sometime journalist Ezra Levant, in a 2002 Calgary federal by-election until the party’s new leader, Stephen Harper, hoisted Levant from the riding to run there himself. Prentice stood down from the campaign out of deference to a party leader and, perhaps, to the suddenly inevitable. In 2003 he ran for the federal Progressive Conservative leadership, losing to Peter MacKay, who promptly negotiated the party’s merger with Harper’s Alliance.

Prentice stayed on and, after the 2006 election brought the Conservatives to power, became Harper’s minister of Indian affairs, then industry, then environment. Throughout, he was chairman of the priorities and planning [UPDATE: It’s actually the operations committee that Prentice chaired, not P&P – pw] committee of Harper’s cabinet, a post earlier prime ministers had reserved for their deputy prime ministers [I got that part right: Deputy PMs used to chair ops, as Prentice did – pw]. So Prentice had the clout of Harper’s right hand without the title. He was also, effectively, the boss’s ambassador plenipotentiary to the Petroleum Club of Calgary. The oil patch never did really warm to Harper, who seemed a bit too weird, distant and ascetic. Prentice, who likes a nice set of cufflinks and who can lean in and share a confidence over an oak lunch table with the best of them, felt more like one of the gang.

Todd Korol/Reuters
Todd Korol/Reuters

In 2012 he resigned suddenly to take a job as vice-chairman of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. Probably he was pleased with the tradeoffs such a leap into private life always entails. A lot more money. A lot less scrutiny from pesky reporters. A little less of a sense that you’re ensconced in the nation’s cockpit. His periodic trips back into the public eye produced mixed results. When the Harper government got a little too eager to push oil sands exports, demonizing its political foes and alienating public opinion in British Columbia over the Northern Gateway pipeline, Prentice popped up with the occasional lunchtime speech, to gently chide his erstwhile colleagues over their failure to play nice with others.

At no point did he seem like a natural. Whenever it came time for CBC’s “At Issue” panel to name the most overrated and underrated federal cabinet ministers, Prentice’s name could be counted on to come up in one category and sometimes both. In 2010 Chantal Hébert decided he was overrated: “He was considered the go-to guy in the first mandate. He goes to the environment, and I don’t think I’ve ever covered a minister of the environment that has had such a low profile, such a non-existent profile,” she said. In 2014, Prentice spoke to the Manning Networking Conference, a semi-official annual runway walk for pretenders to the Conservative throne. I skipped his speech, no fool, and in the hallway outside the convention ballroom, saw people streaming from the room, cradling their heads, marvelling at how much boredom he was stirring up inside.


But by February of this year, judging from the effect he was having on the ground, Prentice had become some kind of juggernaut, scattering his enemies before him. So I flew to Washington, where he was meeting with Obama administration officials and members of Congress, for an interview in the Alberta government’s office at the Canadian Embassy.

Much of that pre-election conversation is still germane, but before I share it I should emphasize that I don’t want to portray Prentice, even in his moment of discomfiture, as some kind of pure stumblebum, because he is almost always quite the opposite. In private, or in settings approximating a business meeting, he is poised, detailed in his responses, careful to drop only the finest names, and quietly confiding.

Photograph by Jason Franson
Photograph by Jason Franson

The stark mismatch between the wall-eyed inanity of his persona at big campaign rallies and the championship polish with which he takes a meeting is one of several good reasons why most of his evenings on the campaign trail end with an unusual feature of Alberta politics which Prentice did not invent but which he has embraced with enthusiasm, the “tele-town hall.” This entails a campaign hiring a telemarketing firm to call a few hundred voters in, say, Medicine Hat, at which point they are informed by a conference-call moderator that the premier of Alberta is waiting on the line, and would they like to talk with him? Dozens say yes. Prentice then spends an hour sharing his campaign pitch, and taking questions from callers. At intervals, the moderator reads out a “polling question,” and callers are urged to type 1 for one answer, 2 for another.

“It’s killer voter ID,” a colleague told me the day after I listened in on one of Prentice’s tele-town halls. “They measure how long you stay on the line, which is how engaged you are. They measure your response to the poll, which gives them a good idea whether you’re a gettable voter for them.” A day or two later, you get a follow-up call from the Conservative campaign, asking whether you want a lawn sign or a ride on election day. It’s ideal for Prentice, because he can explain himself patiently in an empty room, rather than trying to stir up a crowd with a string of breathless non sequiturs.

It was this more confident and low-key Prentice I met in Washington. We talked about the purpose of his trip, long-term relationship-building mixed with a few half-hearted nudges at the Sisyphean task of trying to get Keystone XL approved while Barack Obama is still President, and then I asked him how he had managed to become premier of Alberta.

“Well, you know, a year ago, things were in a desperate state in my province,” he said. “I was minding my own business, I was working at CIBC—working pretty hard, actually, and enjoying it, although there was an awful lot of travel. I was watching matters unfold in Alberta and I was disappointed. It was a very divisive time, a very negative time, a time when the process of government seemed to be unravelling in the province. At the end of the day I became convinced to step in and do something about it.”

He entered the Conservative leadership race last May. “It was a great experience. I got my cowboy boots and my jeans on, and got around the province all summer.” He was unstoppable but he didn’t succumb to overconfidence. “You run flat out, like you’re five points behind, all the time.” Perhaps he did not think too much at the time about how handy that practice would be for later.

Prentice’s selection as leader is, to some extent, an expression of maverick fatigue among Alberta PC members. Reliably in previous leadership races, they have picked rough-hewn eccentrics over the manicured and clean-cut darlings of the party establishment. Ralph Klein over Nancy Betkowski in 1992. Ed Stelmach over Jim Dinning, in a stunning upset in 2006. Redford, a different kind of outsider, over Gary Mar in 2011. Alberta PCs have consistently turned away from the candidate of Calgary office towers in the stretch. Not this time.

Prentice couldn’t believe the mess he’d inherited. He did all the things a serious fellow is expected to do. Within 48 hours he met every deputy minister in the public service, and within 72 hours he’d extended that list to 300 top civil servants. “I quickly realized that some leadership changes were going to be needed.” He brought Richard Dicerni, who was his deputy minister at Industry in Ottawa, out of retirement to run the Alberta public service. “I had watched as he rebuilt the Department of Industry, person by person, attracting bright, young, talented people, revitalizing their sense of pride in who they were and their capacity to work for the government and deliver services. So I reached out to him. I was actually surprised when he agreed to do it, as a matter of fact.”

Mike Ridewood/CP
Mike Ridewood/CP

In 1967 the U.S. behavioural psychologist Martin Seligman discovered that if you put a dog in a harness and gave it an electric shock no matter what it did, it would eventually cower in a ball on the floor and stop trying to do anything at all. Seligman called this pathetic state “learned helplessness.” After four decades under the Alberta Conservatives, capped by three years of Alison Redford, the province’s public service was putting on a pretty good imitation of Seligman’s dogs.

“I want to be clear,” Prentice told me. “There are really fine people in the Alberta civil service. But there were real signs of difficulty. The churn was way beyond what it should have been. Evidence of a great deal of inexperience among people in senior positions. Very few really sage people who had been in their position for a long time. It didn’t have an esprit de corps around it.”

This was a non-trivial problem for the new premier. “I couldn’t get any advice. I’d ask for a briefing and I’d get, like, 30-page memos or 60-page memos, 500 pages on a weekend, but nobody would ever say, ‘I recommend that you do this or that.’ It became clear that people had just—turtled.”

Prentice kept reaching outside the closed—and, if truth be told, a bit stagnant—Alberta governance ecosystem for new help. He tapped Ron Hoffman, a former Canadian ambassador to Afghanistan and Thailand, to shake up the province’s trade offices in Asia. Rob Merrifield, Prentice’s former caucus colleague from Harper’s federal Conservatives, became the province’s representative in Washington. Mike Storeshaw, who had worked in Ottawa for a succession of Alliance leaders and Conservative cabinet ministers, moved to Alberta to become Prentice’s communications director. Mike Percy, a former Alberta Liberal MLA and dean of the Alberta School of Business at the University of Alberta, became Prentice’s chief of staff.

There was a kind of majesty to it all. At last, the technocrats were in charge. But two things were happening that Prentice cannot have anticipated. First, the price of oil was falling off a cliff. And second, Danielle Smith was losing control of the Wildrose.

In November in Red Deer, the Wildrose leader wrapped up her party’s convention by saying the lake-of-fire party was showing welcome new moderation. “We needed a definitive statement to protect the equality of all Albertans, including our friends in the LGBTQ community,” she said. “So we drafted and we passed one.”

What she hadn’t noticed was that the party had un-passed it, voting by 148 members to 109 against making the statement official party policy. Faron Ellis, a Lethbridge College political scientist who had already announced he’d be running in this campaign for Wildrose, was aghast. “They didn’t mismanage the inclusiveness resolution,” he told me, referring to the party brass. “They just didn’t manage it at all.”

Photograph by Jason Franson
Photograph by Jason Franson

Within weeks, Smith and most of the Wildrose caucus had crossed to the Conservatives. Ellis and a handful of other prospective candidates had decided the party wasn’t, in its current incarnation, worth running for. The party leadership eventually fell to Brian Jean, another former federal Conservative caucus mate of Prentice’s, whose company had donated $10,000 to Prentice’s leadership campaign.

When I caught up with Jean on the campaign trail, on the lawn of a limestoney old building in downtown Calgary, he was railing against extravagant government perks and promising a Wildrose government will make MLAs live like the rest of us.

Jean is a squarely built young man with red hair that never quite knows how it wants to lie on his head. He has sometimes been stopped in the street by people who ask for his autograph on the mistaken assumption that he is the U.S. film actor William H. Macy. He told reporters about an unnamed Edmonton MLA who has claimed $34,000 in travel expenses in recent years, although she could walk to the legislature. “Her quarterly filings are always in round numbers . . . Friends, enough is enough. It has got to end.”

He took some questions, displaying a better eye for the big picture than for details. “We will fix all of the problems with health care. It will take a few years but we will focus on that. Very, very focused.” He warned us that if we asked more questions, “we won’t have time for the fun,” then donned safety goggles and work gloves so he could wield an electric power saw to dismember a big fake government credit card.

I caught up with Rachel Notley, the NDP leader, several blocks away at a children’s play park dominated by climbing sets shaped like helicopters. Her father, Grant Notley, was a popular provincial NDP leader who was only 45 when he died in a plane crash in 1984. Rachel Notley is a bright labour lawyer with a bit of an edge to her humour. Over lunch she uncorked a pretty good imitation of Jim Prentice. When I told her Brian Jean had cut up a fake credit card with a power saw, she laughed out loud. “Did he cut up a playground after that? Did he use it to cut a public school classroom?” Always on message.

Returning to Ottawa, I learned later that Notley had got the math wrong in her own party platform and now promises to balance the province’s budget a year later than she did two days earlier. Jean says his own platform has been verified by experts but won’t say who they are. And Prentice, who has presented his platform as the work of the province’s finest minds, now says he won’t apply one of the most controversial measures in his budget, a change to the tax treatment of charitable donations. Miraculously, he says he can improvise his tax code without changing the date of a return to balanced budgets.

It would be too easy to mock these people. All of them have been rattled by one of the strangest years in Alberta’s political history. If they do not appear to have much better answers than you or I, it is because the answers are not obvious in this giant province that has been picked up and shaken by the fates. The fickle polls are the least of Alberta’s problems, and the worst will stick around to beset the winner of this election, whoever that may be.