Premier Jim Prentice on floor-crossers, low oil prices, and GSAs
One year ago, Jim Prentice was a vice-chair and executive vice-president of CIBC.
Today, the former federal cabinet minister is premier of Alberta, a man whose leadership and conservative credentials convinced 11 WildroseMLAs to cross the floor to join his caucus, essentially decimating the once-formidable opposition party.
Prentice has also buoyed the fortunes of the PCs, which dropped sharply in popularity this year as revelations about former premier Alison Redford dominated the news.
Immediately after he was sworn in as premier on Sept. 15, Prentice worked to erase the extravagances of the Redford era. He even put the government planes up for sale.
It seemed to work. The Tories took all four seats in the Oct. 27 byelection.
Not everything has gone smoothly. Prentice took a hit with Bill 10, legislation created to counter a private member’s bill mandating gay-straight alliance clubs in schools where students want them.
The controversy became so heated that Prentice was forced to put the bill on hold four days after it was introduced.
The events of Dec. 17 put outrage over Bill 10 on the back burner. In a move unimaginable just weeks earlier, Prentice and former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith held a joint news conference announcing that she and 8 other caucus members were joining the PCs.
Prentice sat down with the CBC’s John Archer for his year- end interview the next day. They opened their discussion by talking about events that led up to that surprise announcement.
On the floor-crossings:
John Archer CBC: Take me back over the past 24 hours, in particular. What has been going through your mind as all of this has happened?
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, it’s been a pretty intense time, obviously. We had a lengthy caucus meeting yesterday, which you and I spoke about, and of course, the press conference. It’s been a pretty intense period of time.
All of this began really about four or five weeks ago, picked up speed in the last ten days or so. But clearly, yesterday was an important day. Important day for our party, and I think an important day for the province.
CBC: Now I know that caucus considerations are private and aren’t often spoken about. But you did make the point of mentioning yesterday that it was not unanimous. Can you take me into a little bit of that? Were you trying for unanimity?
Premier Jim Prentice: I can’t really take you into that, because I am the person who has insisted that caucus discussions are confidential and they obviously need to remain that way if a caucus is going to thrive. I made the point yesterday that it was overwhelming, to be clear it was not an unanimous decision but it was overwhelming. You know, we’ll move forward as a party on that basis.
The reason I think this is important, and this is maybe a different perspective on it than you’ve heard from others, but these are challenging times for our province. They’re challenging times internally, and they are challenging times externally, and we can talk about the issues if you like. So I’m actually not surprised that small-c conservatives have set aside their differences and come together to make sure that we’re working to advance Alberta’s interests. And stripped of everything else, that’s really what is happening here.
You’ve got nine people who are small-c conservatives who have left the Wildrose caucus and joined the Progressive Conservative party, because they want to make a difference. They’re good people and I think they will help strengthen our government.
CBC: Why is this good for democracy?
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, I have the same sized caucus now that Ralph Klein had, I have the same sized caucus that Peter Lougheed had. This is not unique in Alberta. There still are three opposition parties across the aisle in the legislative assembly.
CBC: Is it good for democracy, though?
Premier Jim Prentice: I think it's very good democracy. I think it’s good for our province. You know, I assume that the opposition parties will continue to do their job and I will continue to do my job.
CBC: Why do you want them? Because in the past five years, there have been a lot of things said, particularly in the past two-and-a-half years, that just can’t be taken back in a day or two.
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, clearly, and individuals are going to have to wrestle with those things on a personal level. And that’s why we had a lengthy discussion about that yesterday. So that will unfold over time.
Why do I want these people? Firstly, they approached us. I have never, at any time, approached anyone from any other political party to join the Progressive Conservative caucus. These were in-bound requests.
Danielle Smith is a hard-working, intelligent, shrewd person. She brings real value, and so do the other members that joined us yesterday. They will all contribute in their own way.
But I come back to the premise that Alberta is not a deeply ideological province. It is a middle-of-the-road province, small-c conservatives on a fiscal sense, broad tent politics when it comes to social values. That’s where I stand and I think these people represent those same considerations.
CBC: Why do you think Danielle Smith won’t bail on you?
Premier Jim Prentice: I think that Danielle Smith is a hard-working person. I think she showed a lot of courage and determination. I know from my discussions with her that she’s interested in the well-being of her province, and to me that’s the litmus test.
CBC: How much integrity do you think she has?
Premier Jim Prentice: I think she has a lot of integrity. I think she stood by what she believes, she’s done what she thinks she needs to do, and I think she’ll make a contribution to this province as she has in the past.
CBC: How do you hold this all together going forward because — you’ve spoken about the broad tent but this is a really broad tent with people involved in the caucus now who have gone at each other.
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, this will be — you know, I’m the leader, that’s my job. I’m the leader, my responsibility is to knit people together to turn it into a team that thrives. So that’s what I’ll do, and I’m confident that will happen.
I mean, these are people of good will. They know that we are dealing with challenging circumstances. We have a $6 billion hole in Alberta’s finances because of the collapse of oil prices. We have challenges nationally and internationally in terms of our reputation relative to the environment. We have experienced an inability to get pipelines built out of this province in any direction. These are challenging times for Albertans. I think Albertans are actually increasingly upset about it, and they want people working together.
You ask about democracy? I don’t think conservatives fighting conservatives is necessarily an indication of democracy.
On dealing with low oil prices:
John Archer CBC: With that $6 billion hole, how do you live up to some of the promises that you’ve made, the commitments in particular about building as many schools as you have promised to build. There just doesn’t appear to be the money for that.
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, that’s not clear. There are two problems we are dealing with simultaneously. One is the challenge that we’ve fallen behind on public infrastructure. Much of public infrastructure construction will need to be financed using debt to some degree. But when I talk about hospitals, roads, bridges, schools, we’re speaking about a situation where we fell significantly behind as a province. Not just in the last two years, but in the last 10 years. And so, these are problems that we now trying to cure. To be sure, they're made more difficult by the fiscal challenges that we face.
On the fiscal side, we’ve become too dependent on revenues from oil and gas. And they are now $6 billion lower than they were last year. And the expectation is that they will be $6 billion lower next year. And $5 billion lower in the year after that. And so, we’re going to have to grapple with that, we’ll have to deal with it, that’s why there’s a cabinet committee that I chair that will be meeting actually again right after this interview to continue the discussions that we're having about how to strike the right balance.
But no Albertan should be under any illusions. These are very significant challenges.
CBC: And you mention that a lot of that will have to be done through debt financing —
Premier Jim Prentice: The construction of public infrastructure .
CBC: Right. And a question that has been asked of you by members who are now a part of your caucus is, how far into debt are you willing to go?
Premier Jim Prentice: Any debt that we take on, there will be clear parameters around it, there will be obligations to repay it and it will be fully transparent to Albertans. But to be clear, those decisions have not yet been made . That’s why we have a cabinet committee working on those issues right now.
CBC: Do you have a number in mind, though?
Premier Jim Prentice: We are working on what that number should be. I mean, we’ve started by making sure we’ve constrained spending. We actually really began by ascertaining the size of the problem, what the structural deficit is that we have, and we’re now focused on how to constrain spending, what sort of difference does that make? We’ll go next to the revenue equation, and we’ll be working through the holiday season on this.
CBC: And on the tax structure, you’ve said that you want to keep Alberta’s tax structure competitive.
Premier Jim Prentice: Correct.
CBC: You haven’t said that you wanted to maintain a flat tax. Could we see progressive taxation?
Premier Jim Prentice: Well, you know, I think it’s fair to say that at this point - I’ve been very clear, I don’t believe in a sales tax, I don’t think Albertans want a sales tax. Leaving that aside, you know, I think all options are on the table, where this is what we’re looking at right now, we’re trying to grapple with the revenue side as well as the expenditure side to deal with a $5-billion problem.
And so, we’ll look at all that. The terms flat tax, progressive tax, they’re value-laden terms. We’ll deal with the realities, the specific realities of what we’re doing on the revenue side in due course.
But to be clear, we are wrestling with all those issues right now.
On Bill 10 and gay-straight alliances:
John Archer CBC: On the social issues, gay-straight alliances have become the dominant social issue in Alberta. Because a lot of people are talking about them now and just within the past month, two months, they’ve really become aware of what the issue is.
Premier Jim Prentice: I think that’s true.
CBC: You talk about striking that balance, and a balance being parental rights. A lot of people are unclear about what is the parental right that needs to be protected in a voluntary student organization?
Premier Jim Prentice: Firstly, I’m the person who’s hit the pause on this to allow for discussion amongst Albertans. And I feel very strongly about that. These are issues on which there are many different opinions. We’ve seen that over the course of the last week in particular. The Catholic church has spoken on these issues and about their views about the autonomy of Catholic school boards in this province. There’s issues of parental rights and what parents feel about the education system. There are very important --
CBC: But what are those issues, the parental rights that you talk about?
Premier Jim Prentice: Let me carry on. There are very important Charter rights of gay and lesbian youngsters that need to be protected, and so these are some of the most challenging issues of our times in terms of constitutional issues, legal issues. What I’ve said is that I’m a person who respects the rights of all Albertans. My responsibility as the premier is to be respectful of the rights of everyone in our society.
I put Bill 10 on pause to allow for a respectful discussion. I think that was the right thing to do. I’ve heard that from virtually every quarter and I'll continue to hear from people.
CBC: You’ve spoken also about your background in your support of gay marriage when that was a front-burner issue in Canada. How concerned are you that your reputation on that issue is at risk if Bill 10 doesn’t change?
Premier Jim Prentice: I’m concerned about Albertans. My reputation will take care of itself. I will do what I’ve done my entire life, which is try to do the right thing. But I recognize that in this debate there are many different points of views of Albertans. They need to be heard.
I thought that Bill 10 struck an appropriate balance. Obviously, there are many people that disagree with that. So, I welcome other people’s thoughts, if they have a better way to deal with this issue where we respect one another as Albertans. So, I’ll continue to hear from them.
My own record is clear. I stood up when it was not a popular thing to do in this country. I was one of the only conservatives in Canada to stand up and vote in favour of same-sex marriage 10 years ago, when these rights were at the very earliest stage of their definition.
People know who I am, they know I’ve stood for their rights, and you know, I think I’m respected on that account.
On the possibility of a spring election:
John Archer CBC: How much consideration are you giving to a spring election in 2015?
Premier Jim Prentice: Not really giving much at this point, because I’m not thinking about it at all. I’m focused on the fiscal challenges we spoke about earlier. These are the most challenging issues we face. I want to get that problem wrestled to the ground, first. That’s why we’ll be meeting through this week into next week, through Christmas, to try to determine how we’re best able to approach this as a province.
I’d emphasize again. You’ve heard me say this is not business as usual. These are very challenging circumstances. We’ve now become inured to low oil prices. I think oil was at $57 a barrel yesterday. Oil below $75, oil below $60, has very significant implications for the public finances of this province. And so we're obligated to deal with that.
CBC: How open are you to changing the strategy that you laid out in Banff at the AGM, about getting nominees in place by June for the non-Tory ridings and everyone else by the end of next year? Can that be sped up? Have you given thought to speeding up that process?
Premier Jim Prentice: Certainly that can be sped up. That’s simply logistics but there’s been no decisions made on any of that. I’m not marching toward a spring election. I’m not taking any options off the table, to be clear, but at the present time we have a date in 2016 and I’m focused on giving the province good government until that time.
CBC: Thank you very much, Premier.
Premier Jim Prentice: Great to be with you. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays.