Alberta's next Tory premier better walk on water

It looks like coronation time for former Calgary MP Jim Prentice, who served as a federal cabinet minister, as Alberta's next premier. But after Alison Redford's flameout, winning the PC party leadership will be the easy part.

The Jim Prentice coronation is well underway, but the stakes are higher than even he may appreciate

And this was just the teaser: former federal environment minister Jim Prentice speaks at the Alberta PC Party Leader's Dinner on Thursday. He is widely expected to enter the leadership race any day now. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

Alberta voters have only turfed three governing parties since joining Confederation. The Progressive Conservatives don't want to be number four.

Once kicked out on their butts, political parties in Alberta tend to disappear — just ask the United Farmers of Alberta or Social Credit, which hasn't won a seat in more than 30 years.

The Liberals, who were actually the province's first government, are still getting elected, but with only five seats in the legislature they are hardly in comeback mode.

So as you watch the post-Alison Redford leadership race for Alberta's PCs, remember that history — the Tories certainly do.

They know this race is about more than the leadership of their party or who will be the next premier. It's about their very survival.

Perhaps former provincial energy minister Ken Hughes was brushing up on his party history this week when he decided to bail on his nascent leadership campaign.

Along with another former minister, Ric McIver, Hughes was briefly one of only two people with the temerity to jump into the race in this early going.

A couple of weeks ago, responding to the speculation that former federal environment minister and CIBC banker Jim Prentice might enter the race, Hughes said the idea of a Prentice coronation would be "a disaster for the province of Alberta."

But now, after pulling the plug Monday on his own campaign, Hughes doesn't seem quite so worried about the coronation thing.

In fact he is ready to work "side by side" with Prentice, whose formal candidacy is still unannounced, to "rebuild our party."

'Stay tuned'

It's not a tear-down yet, but the political house that Alison Redford was supposed to have rebuilt is definitely a fixer-upper.

Some observers point to the paltry poll numbers as evidence. A better indicator is money. The party that has governed one of the country's richest provinces for 43 years is in debt and paying its bills with a line of credit.

A recent fundraising dinner was supposed to begin the process of getting the party flush again. It was chaired by none other than Jim Prentice, and attracted a record 1,800 supporters who paid $500 a plate.

"It's a great night…. Ladies and gentlemen, it's just the beginning," said Prentice to the party faithful. "Stay tuned, it's going to be an exciting time."

The former federal minister was once a failed Alberta provincial candidate.

Jim Prentice ran for the PCs in 1986 and lost to the NDP's Bob Hawkesworth.

You read that right. In fact, the NDP won 30 per cent of the vote that year. That election was an outlier, though. By 1993, the NDP was at 11 per cent with no seats in the legislature.

Though Prentice was a loser then, he looks a lot more like a winner now. In fact, the Tories are almost giddy with enthusiasm over the prospect of Prentice leading them away from the electoral abyss, and it's not difficult to see why.

He brings an impressive resume as both a former federal cabinet minister and a senior bank executive of CIBC. 

That, along with his involvement in trying to negotiate with First Nations to get the Northern Gateway pipeline built through British Columbia, gives him profile and prestige.

What he doesn't bring might be even more important. He's not a member of the PC cabinet and so he is not responsible for the mess they have created for themselves.

But 'he's a Red Tory!'

As you might imagine, Danielle Smith, the leader of the opposition Wildrose Party, sees it somewhat differently.

She reminds anyone who asks — or even forgets to ask — that Redford, who is hardly the most popular former leader at the moment, is an old friend and colleague of Prentice. In fact, she articled at Prentice's law firm.

Alison Redford returned to work as MLA for Calgary-Elbow on May 5. The former premier had not been in the legislature since she resigned March 23 in a scandal over lavish spending and allegations of imperious behaviour toward staff and colleagues. (Dean Bennett/Canadian Press)

Smith also accuses Redford of keeping her seat warm for Prentice. The worst smear of all, though — he's a "Red Tory."

Former Conservative House leader Jay Hill, who is to co-chair the Prentice campaign, says that label "annoys me to no end."

Hill says Prentice is "a conservative who has a heart." But does he have the stomach for the political challenges ahead?

If the party thought Redford's resignation would staunch the bleeding, the anemia they're still suffering from must come as a bit of a shock.

Redford continues to make the kind of headlines that erodes faith in a party that has led this province longer than any other.

The controversial $45,000 trip to Nelson Mandela's funeral — money she ended up repaying — was just the beginning of the hurt.

Since Redford walked out of the legislature, we've learned about other flights, plans for a penthouse apartment for her in a government building in Edmonton (referred to as the "sky palace"); more than $1.2 million in severance packages for her staff; and the CBC has obtained documents through freedom of information revealing huge bills for security over and above what is normally budgeted to protect a premier.

The narrative of an indulgent, entitled, elitist leader has deeply damaged the party.

As for Jim Prentice, he has done everything but make it official. That coyness is getting tiresome, and one suspects he knows that.

He also knows what has happened to other "frontrunners" and "messiahs." Some don't win. Some win and wish they hadn't. 


Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.