Jim Prentice's tough medicine

While the Alberta premier is seen to be attacking voters, the opposition is a shambles. Bring on the election.

Blair Gable/Reuters

Blair Gable/Reuters

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On March 4, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice made a goof, a slip, a boner, a faux pas . . . can you tell when someone is trying not to say “gaffe”? As the American editor Michael Kinsley decisively ruled for all time in 1984, “gaffe” is an English word now used only to refer to a politician saying something true that he is not supposed to have said.

It’s hard to say whether Prentice’s remarks on a CBC Radio call-in show, which set off a great deal of outraged chatter on Twitter, were true or untrue. That may be a matter of political interpretation best left to the reader.

It was perhaps inevitable that Prentice would get into a verbal pickle of some kind. Since capturing the leadership of Alberta’s Progressive Conservatives in September, the former lawyer, federal minister and banker has pursued a strategy of maximum availability, appearing on radio shows and at press conferences at a tempo utterly unfamiliar in recent Alberta politics. It is a keynote of his style, established in a leadership campaign which saw him roam the province with his family in an RV.

Predecessors like Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach, and Alison Redford were guarded carefully by handlers or simply didn’t bother confronting voters. Prentice speaks for himself, and not just in phony fireside chats. It’s refreshing, but the risks are now apparent. When a caller asked about the budget crisis, Prentice gave a long answer that ran thus:

“You know, we all want to blame somebody for the circumstances that we’re in. The bottom line is, we have had the highest cost and the best public services in the country, and we haven’t built, basically, a revenue model that sustains them. And this has been clear in our province for a number of years. People have been saying this for many years, that we were in this circumstance and that we would eventually get caught. And now we have, because oil prices have collapsed and suddenly the province has a $7-billion hole in its budget.

“In terms of who is responsible we all need only look in the mirror. Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.”

It was this last bit that seemed to sound the wrong tone. Prentice has been cautiously, non-specifically critical of prior PC governments, but his “we were warned” prologue was overlooked, or was taken to suggest that deficits incurred with West Texas Intermediate oil around US$100 were an inexplicable act of God. The “look in the mirror” quote seemed to be blaming ordinary Albertans, as opposed to their elected officials, with perhaps a hint of Ignatieff-esque hauteur.

It’s impossible to know how angry at Prentice Alberta voters really are, although a previously scheduled legislature protest against still-hypothetical spending cuts suddenly became mirror-themed after the radio appearance. Published political polling here is in a lull, although an election campaign seems likely to get under way as early as next month. After the 2012 election results left pollsters egg-faced, the province now has a cranky, radical skepticism of polls anyway.

That’s part of what makes for a weird political environment in 2015 Alberta. Citizens waiting for a change of government are now officially in uncharted territory: no Canadian regime, provincial or federal, has ever lasted so long. PC governments have run fantastic surpluses and vast, dusty deficits; they’ve taken bullets for Big Oil and scrapped with it; they’ve alternately cooed and carped at Ottawa and the appellate courts. And they have survived all, including, yes, dozens of gaffes. This means no one really knows what it would take to kill the PCs. The opposition in Alberta can be forgiven for seizing upon anything.

Some data points are there, glittering against the background of the epistemological void. The hashtag activism that Prentice unleashed with his radio misstep was accompanied by the rollout of a new $500,000 publicity campaign funded by the Alberta Federation of Labour and other unions. Prentice’s recent precursors in the Alberta premiership were able to bribe public sector unions into relative electoral neutrality. But Prentice has emphasized that comparatively lavish public employee compensation is a big part of Alberta’s overgrown budgets. Early this month he expressed support for British Columbia’s dollar-driven, highly centralized model for the province’s collective bargaining.

In the B.C. scheme all negotiations go through the finance minister; there’s less scope for the traditional Albertan improvisation that sometimes happens in the run-up to an election. B.C. has also, of course, made heavy use of legislative short-circuits in labour disputes with teachers. With Prentice looking west, the Alberta PCs are likely to face, before and during the imminent election, the kind of unsparing intervention from labour unions that their Ontario cousins have become used to.

As voters, unionized workers and leftists may also be uncharacteristically unified in this election. Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman quit politics on Jan. 26, leaving his party to be led into the campaign by an interim head. A couple of the Liberals’ best candidates had already left provincial politics to gamble on Team Justin Trudeau, and the most authoritative figure left in the provincial party, Edmonton MLA Laurie Blakeman, is keen to start merger talks with other parties after the election. The Liberals are, in short, all but dormant and may be dying.

As Wildrose leader, Danielle Smith took some tentative steps toward trying to court union votes, or at least bare acceptance, but Smith has crossed the floor and endorsed Prentice. (Her Conservative nomination meeting in the Highwood riding is scheduled for March 28—the same day her old party announces its new permanent leader.) That leaves the New Democrats and their new leader, Rachel Notley, as perhaps the only game in town for the centre-left.

Prentice has not gone without good news as he tries to put the PC machine back on a more traditional right-wing footing. The plunge in the benchmark oil price does seem to have stopped at US$50—for Alberta, an uncomfortable but not depopulating level. Ian Donovan and Kerry Towle, the two Wildrose MLAs whose early floor-crossing to the PCs precipitated the later bloc move that captured bigger headlines, have already won PC nominations. And if Alberta has an election with only one party on the left in working order, any PC premier would certainly choose for it to be the NDP—particularly an old-school provincial NDP visibly dominated by organized labour. The New Democrats (and the earlier CCF) have never taken as much as 30 per cent of the vote in an Alberta election.

The overall outcome of the next election is in little doubt. And yet, paradoxically, the upcoming weeks and months seem destined to be full of interest. The PCs will finally crystallize a real budget out of Prentice’s giant fog of hypothetical austerity measures. The shattered Wildrose will choose a boss and, implicitly, a political raison d’être. Other Wildrose-turned-PC floor-crossers are facing nomination battles (most of which are being contested).

The opposition parties will jockey for lifeboat places, with the possibility of an NDP breakthrough (which, in Alberta terms, would mean any double-digit number of assembly seats). Then the PCs will have to hammer out a legislative agenda beyond the current obsession with bean-counting; it bears remembering that they have tricky unfinished business with gay-straight alliances in public schools. Alberta politics can be pretty darned entertaining for something so boring.