Calgary·Analysis

Jim Prentice has a huge hill to climb to give Albertans what they want

Changing leaders hasn’t helped Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party so far, and Jim Prentice has a huge hill to climb if he's to extend the party’s power beyond this mandate, Kathleen Petty writes.

Premier has said province is 'under new management'

Premier Jim Prentice has made it very clear that getting new pipelines built to carry Alberta's oil to market is his top priority. (CBC)

The most successful political dynasty in Canadian history is in trouble. Sixteen Alberta premiers since Confederation doesn’t sound like a lot, but four premiers within a three-year period sure does.

Changing leaders hasn’t helped Alberta’s Progressive Conservative party so far, and Jim Prentice has a huge hill to climb if he's to extend the party’s power beyond this mandate.

The key to the party’s success has been adaptability. On the 30th anniversary of PC party rule in 2001, I sat down with the man who started it all; Peter Lougheed. I asked the obvious question — why do Albertans keep returning the party to power?

He said it was deceptively simple: reflect the aspirations and expectations of the people in how you govern.

In the years since that interview, the party seemed to forget Lougheed's advice. Staying connected to Albertans is difficult when you're literally looking down on the electorate.

Too much time jetting around in government aircraft, and designing a penthouse apartment dubbed the “sky palace” put you about as out of touch as you can get — and of course led inexorably to Alison Redford’s political demise.

When asked about the government fleet on Monday, the new minister of transport told us to “stay tuned,” and on Tuesday the premier acted. The government’s planes are for sale. The high-flying ways of the past are being grounded.

Jim Prentice proclaimed after his swearing in as premier Monday that “Alberta is under new management.” Flying commercial or carpooling might be one way to demonstrate that, but it will take more.

Much more.

Cabinet shuffle

It’s usually opposition leaders who promise change for obvious reasons, but Prentice campaigned for the leadership on that theme and designed his cabinet around it. Truth is, though, the changes aren't as deep as they might seem at first glance.

Premier Jim Prentice, left, appointed former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel as health minister in a cabinet that is one-third smaller. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Although the cabinet is a third smaller and some old stalwarts were left out, very few new faces are at the table — they're mostly familiar faces sitting in different chairs. Those who are new include unelected ministers of health and education who control more than half the province's budget.

The premier also doesn’t have a mandate from the people. The legislature was scheduled to resume sitting Oct. 27, but notice was given Thursday that the current session would be prorogued and the third session will begin Nov. 17. Prentice clearly realizes he needs go to the voters and win a seat first. 

Balancing the books

What will matter more is getting stuff done, big stuff.

Balancing the budget would be a good start. Albertans like to feel flush. They also want the books balanced in a straightforward way: If you take in more than you spend you have a surplus.

The ousted finance minister adopted an accounting system the official opposition likened to a “shell game.” Doug Horner announced in June that Alberta was back in surplus for the first time since the financial crisis, but the Wildrose party challenged that claim because the billions borrowed for capital projects aren’t included in the calculation.

One way to return to record surpluses is getting Alberta’s oil to market. Rail isn’t going to cut it. Alberta needs pipelines and Prentice is making it very plain that getting them built is his top priority.

That will prove difficult — especially Northern Gateway and Keystone. It’s no mystery why the new premier took on the ministries of aboriginal relations and intergovernmental and international relations. He has some difficult negotiations ahead.

And perhaps negotiation isn't even possible. Already, Art Sterritt of British Columbia's Coastal First Nations is warning that although they might like Prentice, Northern Gateway is dead.

One strategy this former federal environment minister won’t adopt is increasing Alberta’s $15-a-tonne carbon tax. The Pembina Institute, an environment and energy think-tank, says the levy isn’t doing enough to meet the province’s own targets to cut GHG emissions. During the leadership campaign, Prentice said although he won’t scrap the levy until and unless the U.S. adopts its own tax on carbon, it’s status quo.

Accountability

If the new premier can return Alberta to healthy surpluses and get pipelines built, the other big piece of the political puzzle will be to avoid scandal.

To that end, Prentice is trotting out a familiar-sounding initiative; a new accountability act.

In 2006, the Federal Accountability Act was the second piece of legislation introduced by Stephen Harper’s new government. It was designed to address abuses of power and tax dollars.

Alberta actually passed its own accountability act in 1995. It’s been revised since then but it seems obvious it wasn’t doing the job — practically or politically.

If leadership votes by members of the PC party are any indication, they believe that if anyone can extend their record-breaking time in power, it’s Jim Prentice, who won the party helm on Sept. 6, 2014. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Like the feds, Alberta has a fixed election date — with a bit of a twist. The date is every four years within a three-month period. In Alberta’s case, that means a vote between March and May 2016.

However, just like at the federal level, the Queen’s representative can dissolve the legislature at any time. You drop the writs when you think you can win, so we’ll see when and if the PCs think they have winning conditions.

If we take the leadership votes by members of the PC party as an indication, it believes that if anyone can extend their record breaking time in power, it’s Jim Prentice.

Of course, those votes represent a minuscule number of Albertans. Forty-three years is a long time, and assuming a general election in 2016, it will be 45 years with the potential to close in on half a century. Whew!

Albertans want what most Canadians want: A strong economy, safe communities, good health care and education and an opportunity to fulfil a few dreams. They want a government that is a true reflection of the province and its citizens.

When voters look at Jim Prentice in the coming months, the question is what they'll see reflected back.

About the Author

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 cbc.ca and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.

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