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Promises aren't enough for Alberta Tories to win back any progressive votes

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Jim Prentice

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Perhaps it's time to just come right out and state the obvious: If Tory leadership front-runner Jim Prentice wants even a few of Alberta's badly burned progressive voters to give his so-called Progressive Conservative Party their consideration one more time, he's going to have to do more than make promises.

There's one big reason for this: Alison Redford.

Back in 2011, when she was running for the leadership of the Alberta PC Party, Redford made all sorts of promises about protecting public health care, building new schools, supporting other public services and respecting the front-line workers who teach, nurse and do other public service jobs so essential it's illegal for most of them to go on strike.

Not long before the 2012 general election, it looked very much as if the PCs might lose to the Wildrose Party, which was distrusted by progressive voters because it had positioned itself to the right of the traditionally right-wing Tories.

Redford's promises -- plus an embarrassing and badly timed stumble by an undiplomatic Wildrose candidate -- were enough to turn the tide and save the PCs from embarrassment at the polls.

Thousands of voters who would have preferred to vote for the NDP, the Alberta Liberals, the Alberta Party or the Greens held their noses and voted for Alison Redford’s local representative.

But when she got into office, it all turned out to be … what? A trick? A lie? Another day? A Bitumen Bubble?

Whatever, almost from Day 1, everything changed. On virtually every file, Redford did the opposite of what she had promised. She slashed post-secondary education spending, declared war on public employees and their unions, banned free speech on labour relations issues and broke promises with such abandon that it startled even a public grown deeply cynical about the behaviour of politicians.

When the political price of this dishonesty became apparent, her frightened caucus fired her.

Now here we are with a new PC leadership contest and the overwhelming front-runner, Prentice, making all sorts of promises about protecting public health care, building new schools, supporting other public services and respecting the front-line workers who teach, nurse and do other public service jobs so essential it's illegal for most of them to go on strike.

I have no reason to believe the former banker, lobbyist and federal cabinet minister isn't being completely sincere when he makes these commitments.

Yesterday morning, he met with about 800 PC supporters at a fund-raising breakfast in Edmonton and ripped into the controversial report of the "so-called Task Force for Teaching Excellence" -- his phrase, not mine -- commissioned under Redford and recently released with great fanfare by Education Minister Jeff Johnson.

Teachers were outraged by the report because it proposed a vindictive and ineffective system of periodical re-certification for teachers -- you know, the very same teachers who just happen to run one of the most successful educational systems in Canada and the world, which hard-right conservatives never stop complaining about because, basically, they're looking for any old excuse to privatize it.

In his speech, Prentice suggested no one except the crowd around Redford and the Wildrose Party cares about how teachers are evaluated or disciplined -- the latter a reference to Johnson's ham-handed decision to overturn the Alberta Teachers Association's discipline of several teachers, which the minister had loudly proclaimed to be insufficiently harsh to a chorus of Ya-Hoos from the Sun News Network

If nothing else, Johnson can safely conclude he probably won't have a position in Prentice's cabinet!

Prentice promised to treat the teachers and their union with respect. He promised to come up with stable funding for post-secondary education. He promised to build 50 new schools and upgrade another 70.

All of this, obviously, is calculated to woo back the group that saved the Tories in their last hour of need, which Redford inexplicably betrayed, and to patch things up with teachers in particular -- whose joint union and regulatory body, the ATA, has been mocked in the past for acting as if it were the "Alberta Tory Association."

But the problem with this, to be blunter than Canadians usually like to be, is that Redford lied so spectacularly and so frequently, and betrayed her supporters so thoroughly, that it is going to take a hell of a lot more than promises -- even really promising promises like the ones Prentice promised yesterday -- to persuade anyone remotely progressive to cast a vote for him or his party.

And since the hard right is likely to vote Wildrose this time, there's not much chance the PCs can survive as a party, let alone a government, without substantial numbers of those progressive voters.

Prentice is likely to make similar promises to other groups that rallied to Redford's side in 2012 -- civil servants, nurses other health care workers, for example.

But an awful lot of Albertans feel, as George W. Bush once tried and failed to say: "Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me."

So, unfortunately for Prentice, thanks to the catastrophe wrought on the PC party by Redford, he is going to have to do more than just make upbeat promises to get anywhere with what’s become a pretty tough crowd for Tories in the past two years.

A good place to start would be for him not to rush into a cynical early election while he enjoys a post-victory bounce, which in this atmosphere may not last the length of the campaign, but to bring forward and implement a legislative program that shows he means what he says.

Then he must repeal Bill 45, Ms. Redford's disgraceful and unconstitutional attack on the free-speech rights of all Albertans, and the right of Alberta working people to bargain collectively.

He needs to drop this year's Bills 9 and 10, the needless attacks on the retirement savings of many Albertans in both the public and private sectors, seemingly cooked up as a sop to far-right Astro-Turf organizations like the Canadian Federation of Independent Business, which it has to be said again works against the interests of independent businesses by attacking the financial security of their middle-class customers.

And he needs to pass a budget that restores lost funding to post-secondary institutions, actually earmarks funds for the schools he promised to build yesterday and adequately funds public health care.

If Prentice won't do those things, it's reasonable to conclude the same old crowd is still in power in the PC Party and the same arrogance and old bad ideas will reassert themselves the instant the party wins another election.

The choice facing Prentice is pretty stark: he can walk the walk before the election, or he can be handed his walking papers.

Et tu, Brute? Thomas Lukaszuk suggests he'd kick Alison Redford out of PC party

Tory leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, who once served as Alison Redford's deputy premier, was musing yesterday about kicking Redford right out of the Progressive Conservative Party if she won't do the right thing and quit in light of the latest revelations she spent even more on travel than we knew about hitherto.

Who would have thought she was also supposed to report travel expenses by her ministerial flunkies, one of whom the CBC reported racked up close to $330,000 in travel bills between the middle of 2012 and January 2014?

Not her or her advisors, apparently.

Well, just so you know, Lukaszuk is not being disloyal. For one thing, I don't think he ever forgave Redford for canning him as deputy dawg back in December 2013 -- although, if you think about it, she may have done him an unintentional favour by pushing him away from her office after then Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel assailed the government's disgraceful cuts to post-secondary education.

For another, Lukaszuk's call for her to quit sooner than later may be little more than a mischievous opportunity to throw a sly little spanner into the works of front-runner Jim Prentice's campaign. After all, it's likely that when Redford actually does resign -- some time after Prentice's coronation in September -- her riding will be made available to the newly anointed premier.

Well, let Lukaszuk have his fun. Now that candidate Ric McIver has experienced his own Lake of Fire moment, "Last-Place" Lukaszuk actually has an opportunity to be second in the three-member class of 2014.

Whatever he says won't affect the reality that Redford will be gone soon enough, never to darken the door of the Alberta Legislature again.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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