A smooth win for Jim Prentice, but a bumpy road ahead

Colby Cosh on the coronation of the Alberta PC leader

Jason Franson/CP

Jason Franson/CP

The final tally in the first ballot of the Alberta Conservative leadership contest—at least as far as anybody knows, since the figures were announced aloud once and there still hasn’t been a press release—was Jim Prentice, 17,963; Ric McIver, 2,742; Thomas Lukaszuk, 2,681. All of these numbers are jaw-dropping. Lukaszuk and McIver, who were both cabinet ministers when they joined the race, could not finish second in their own ridings at a general election with those vote totals.

The total first-ballot vote was down dramatically from 2011, when nearly 60,000 people voted—and those 60,000 paid to participate. Many or most of the voting memberships were given away free this time by the Prentice camp. (Lukaszuk jokingly reminded his supporters during the campaign that they could get a membership for free from Prentice and use it to vote for anybody.)

On the evening of the vote announcement in Edmonton, a lot of observers joked that the Eskimos-Stampeders game across town had more fans (40,852) than the PCs had voters (23,386). What they didn’t add was that the Commonwealth Stadium 50/50 draw, which paid $145,332, unquestionably raised more cash.

Alberta voters, of course, would have to have been a singularly dim lot not to sense that Jim Prentice was going to win the PC leadership in a landslide. Apparently they were as comfortable with him as with any of the alternatives. It is not hard to see why, given the outlandish PC spending habits that continued to surface throughout the campaign.

Lukaszuk, for one, was hit with a news item about spending $20,000 on telephone calls and data transfers while taking a personal trip to Poland and Israel in 2012. Lukaszuk had a decent explanation for the amount, which was rung up dealing remotely with a fellow minister’s late-night family crisis.

The fact that he appeared to be acting as something of a personal legal fixer at the expense of the public was less well explained: according to the CBC, the unnamed minister ended up with a restraining order against him, and Lukaszuk referred to making sure “that the cabinet minister has the legal representation that the cabinet minister needs.” Even if Lukaszuk had been the attorney general, or a lawyer, it is hard to see how this could qualify as public business.

The impression left was of a PC cabinet badly needing to have a grown-up put in charge.

Matters were not helped in the final hours of the campaign by the technical glitches which, as usual, accompanied the introduction of a new e-voting system in a leadership race.

National viewers settling down with a computer to watch the vote announcement at the Edmonton Expo Centre were nonplussed at outgoing interim premier Dave Hancock’s rambling farewell speech, and positively shocked when party president Jim McCormick appeared to crumble emotionally while mentioning that the PC government recently became Confederation’s longest-serving.

By the time Prentice came to the podium, Alberta was practically frantic for a reassuring, no-nonsense presence. “Over time the government [of Alberta] has lost its way,” he said, “and, watching from afar, I was as disappointed and frustrated as anyone . . . I wasn’t at the table when those decisions were made, but I am at the table now.”

The next premier, who will be sworn in on or about Sept. 15, has made a calculated gamble by promising to bid for the legislature in time for the planned November session of the assembly. He intends to run in Calgary, at a time when no PC seat south of Red Deer is totally safe, but he has passed up Redford’s Calgary-Elbow seat, which will create a second electoral front in the city.

Prentice says he intends to remake cabinet radically, saying, “You won’t recognize it.” He held out an olive branch to Lukaszuk and McIver in his acceptance speech, and later had private talks with both men. But perhaps the most interesting early move was naming former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel to the transition team. Mandel reluctantly opted out of the PC leadership race, but has continued to express interest in a senior provincial job. If Prentice intends to say no, this is a funny way of going about it.

As the capital’s mayor, Mandel launched an ambitious, wholesale renovation of Edmonton’s downtown, whose financial and social effects will not be final for at least a decade.

There have already been failures and struggles. Prentice needs an Edmonton lieutenant, but if he wants to maintain his momentum and remain baggage-free, Mandel is a high-risk choice.