Calgary·Analysis

4 challenges facing Jim Prentice

While the strong show of support from PC voters might have premier-designate Jim Prentice feeling confident, it won't be an easy road ahead for the man vowing to bring about a "new beginning for Alberta."

Setting detailed energy policy as soon as possible seen as key

Jim Prentice salutes after winning the Progressive Conservative leadership earlier this fall. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Former MP and Aboriginal Affairs Minister Jim Prentice is now the leader of the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party and premier-designate of the province.

Prentice's landslide win came on the first ballot, with contenders Ric McIver and Thomas Lukazsuk getting 2,742 and 2,681 votes, respectively.

While the strong show of support from PC voters might have Prentice feeling confident, it won't be an easy road ahead for the man vowing to bring about a "new beginning for Alberta."

Here are four of the issues facing the premier-designate.

1. Rebuilding the party

Leaked documents … personal attacks … while leadership races are never for the faint of heart, this one has certainly seen its share of low points among the candidates.

With Prentice's victory, he's now in the position of having to rebuild a party that's been more focused on internal drama than building strong policy over the past several months. His reputation as an outsider has helped shelter him from the worst of the PC Party's tainted legacy but as its new leader, he will have to go about rebuilding relationships among the party caucus and giving both members, and voters, a clear visualization of what this new government stands for.

Winning caucus support won't be as much of a problem for Prentice as it would have been for McIver or Lukaszuk. Prentice already has the support of at least 50 caucus members, but he's still faced with the problem of deciding how to fill his cabinet. Having already attacked several sitting cabinet ministers, rationalizing any decision to keep those figures in place could jeopardize his narrative of a "new beginning" government, said Duane Bratt, a political scientist at Calgary's Mount Royal University.

The general consensus among political watchers seems to be that the three top portfolios — finance, health and education — could see a clearing out, while other lower portfolios will likely be consolidated to uphold Prentice's campaign vow of reducing the size of his cabinet to 20.

"If you're going to distance yourself from the Redford government, I don't know how you can keep Doug Horner," said Bratt. "Jeff Johnson and Fred Horne will also likely be easy for Prentice to drop."

Negotiating who moves where will be a delicate dance. He'll need to send a message to his party about his government's priorities, and building a cabinet is a big part of that. Prentice could also feel compelled to repay some of the lower-profile caucus members who played a big role in his campaign – Teresa Woo-Paw and Matthew Jeneroux could be two  who may yet find themselves with cabinet portfolios over the coming weeks.

The other lingering question is about what to do with McIver and Lukaszuk. Despite his history as a polarizing figure, Elizabeth Smythe, a political scientist with Concordia University College of Alberta, says she thinks Lukaszuk could receive an offer of a mid-ranking cabinet position. Whether he accepts it is another question.

Others seem less certain of whether Lukaszuk, who served as Redford's former deputy premier before being demoted in December 2013, should be kept in cabinet. As for McIver, his future in a Prentice cabinet seems less likely in light of a certain strongly-worded radio ad taken out by his campaign just days before the vote.

"Prentice only has two choices," said Stephen Carter, national director of campaign strategy with Hill & Knowlton Strategies in Calgary. "Bring them in and keep them close or cast them out. They can't just be caucus members … Right now, I'd say they're both more likely to be out than in."

2. Winning a seat in legislature

While it will be another week before Prentice is sworn in as premier, he needs to come up with a plan quickly for getting elected to the Alberta legislature.

"I don't think Prentice will want to lead from outside the [Legislative Assembly]," said Susan Elliott, who was the PC Party's campaign manager in the 2012 election. "He has to get hopping to run a byelection."

For Prentice, the question is: where to run? He had said during the campaign that he would not run in Calgary-Elbow, which was left vacant when Alison Redford resigned her seat in August. But when asked about the constituency on Saturday night following his win, Prentice dodged questions about when or where he would run.

Calgary-Elbow has history as being a constituency held by premiers, with both Redford and Ralph Klein taking the seat for the PC Party. There's only one confirmed contender for the byelection in that constituency right now and it's the leader of the Alberta Party, Greg Clark. Clark issued a challenge to Prentice over the weekend, saying Prentice could save Albertans about $100,000 by not forcing a second byelection in another constituency. So far, Prentice has yet to respond or clarify where he intends to run for a seat in the legislature.

"No doubt they have some things in mind and so the [phone calls] they're going to make are to the people — or the person — who they think will give up their seat," said Elliott.

3. Earning Albertans' trust

Prentice ran and won his leadership campaign by casting himself as an outsider, but that alone will not be enough for Albertans in the next election. Prentice will need to take a solid stand in addressing the culture of entitlement in his party, and some expect his first big move as premier could be a symbolic gesture to set himself apart from the past governments in the eyes of Albertans.

Smythe says she wouldn't be surprised if Prentice immediately launches a review into the government aircraft travel policy – or better yet, announces plans to sell the entire fleet.

"It looks good in terms of being more transparent and accountable to taxpayers," she said.

Others are less certain of whether Prentice or his party have the political motivation to take such a bold step, regardless of how it might resonate with voters.

"I don't think they actually want to change," said Carter. "I think what they want to do is move the chairs around on the Titanic but not actually get to the fundamental problems."

Another bold move to set himself apart from the past governments could be to prioritize running a balanced budget.

Bratt says pulling that off before the next election, by pushing increased infrastructure spending back until after the 2016 election, would send a strong message to Albertans about the new government's priorities.

"It's more important to actually have a balanced budget in Alberta for the first time in seven years, eight years," Bratt said. "That would be a major shift, no matter how he's able to accomplish it."

4. Get energy resources to market

Prentice has been quite successful at running a leadership campaign on platitudes, but very quickly he will have to start showing some policy positions, and nothing is more important to the Alberta economy than getting resources to market.

"The turmoil of the last while in the Alberta government has really left that kind of in limbo," said Smythe. "It's time to send a new and different message – and I think it's going to have to be a message of, 'Yes, we are an energy producer but we are an environmentally responsible energy producer,' and it's got to go beyond rhetoric."

The premiers' conference in Charlottetown illustrated that other regions are willing to negotiate a national energy strategy that is more accommodating of Alberta's oil production, but Smythe says Prentice will still need to be able to show partners like the U.S. that Alberta can walk the walk when it comes to producing energy responsibly. His experience building relationships with First Nations and corporations alike could serve Alberta well in negotiating deals to get pipeline development moving, but he needs to be able to explain his proposals and convince stakeholders to get on board – something he's yet to do in his campaign for the party leadership.

"There's nothing more important than market access to the Alberta economy," said Carter. "I don't think Albertans are going to tolerate a lot of cheques being written, and it will be interesting to see what Prentice's approach will be."

Have a question about Jim Prentice's PC leadership win? Tune in to Alberta@Noon at 12 p.m. MT to pose your questions to Elizabeth Smythe.

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