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Round 1 to Jim Prentice as Wildrose comes out swinging over debt remark

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Jim Prentice

Well, it's hard to know for sure, but I'd say the first open policy scrap between Jim Prentice, Progressive Conservative Premier Apparent of Alberta, and the Wildrose Opposition yesterday morning went to Prentice.

Leastways, by most accounts Prentice managed to sound like a grownup when he gave a policy speech over breakfast to the members of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, his first such event since making his long-expected candidacy official on Wednesday.

In response to a questioner, he stated clearly that if you're going to run a Canadian provincial government, you may have to incur some debt in order to build the expensive stuff you need when your population grows, like hospitals, schools, roads and seniors' facilities. The CBC made a recording of the Question and Answer session, so you can listen for yourself to what he had to say and how he said it.

"This isn't about ideology, it is about people and the basic responsibilities of government," said Prentice, in what seems to have become the symbolic sound bite of the affair. He also stated that Alberta has "an incredible infrastructure deficit" -- although he was too savvy to put the blame for that fact where it belongs, on the shoulders of the now-sainted premier Ralph Klein.

Without naming names, he observed of the infrastructure hangover left by Klein's period of misrule: "This has to be built. Let's get on with it. That's how all other democratic governments function and that's how this one will."

Remember that the lawyer, lobbyist, senior banker and former federal cabinet minister was speaking to a friendly and sympathetic crowd. Calgary is his home, and the community he represented for the Conservative Party of Canada. And the Calgary Chamber is a titch more liberal than Chambers of Commerce in most Canadian cities. The room was certainly packed with people in favour of the idea of public spending on big infrastructure projects, however it's financed.

As for the Wildrose Opposition, it's not a condemnation to say it reacted predictably. You can frame it positively: the Wildrose Party under Leader Danielle Smith has unequivocally staked out its position that each provincial budget should be balanced and there are few times a province as rich as Alberta should need to go into debt, maybe none.

The Wildrosers have certainly never made any bones about the fact that on most issues, though not every one, they are well to the to the right of the Tory governments of Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, Dave Hancock and -- by the sound of it -- the one that will likely be run by Prentice.

Or you can frame it negatively: the Wildrose Party has boxed itself by taking an inflexible position on debt and economic development, and Prentice tried to exploit that.

However you see it -- and how you see it is likely to be tied to your own beliefs on this question -- Wildrose spokespeople and their close friends in the media reacted instinctively, saying pretty much what you'd expect in response to Prentice's statement he would be prepared to use debt to build infrastructure.

Never mind the other stuff that was talked about yesterday -- entitlement, use of government airplanes, the province's ridiculous flat tax and all the rest -- because the Prentice and Wildrose positions are essentially identical.

Wildrose Finance Critic Rob Anderson did the honours on the response: "This is not change. This is the same gong show we’ve been putting up with for the past four years," Anderson said, according to the reliably supportive Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun. "Now we have some banker from Bay Street coming here and telling us to borrow more money from banks. You can't make this stuff up."

"Nice fumble on your first carry, Jim," Bell quoted Anderson as saying defiantly. "If Jim's goal was to woo back conservatives he'll regret this day. We'll make sure of it." The Calgary Herald quoted Anderson on the same question: "He made a severe strategic error today."

Well, we'll see.

Prentice certainly made an important strategic choice yesterday. Presumably he did it in a considered way, knowing that it would be heavily reported as his first major policy statement, and that it would clearly differentiate the PC Party under his likely leadership from the well-known Wildrose position. He undoubtedly has good polling data on what Albertans think about the issue as well.

So if Anderson is right and it was a serious strategic error, it was a calculated one.

The Herald also quoted Janet Brown, a leading Alberta pollster based in Calgary, who was also at the breakfast, saying her research indicates Alberta voters are about evenly split on whether using government debt to build big projects is a good idea or a bad one.

So think about this: If Brown is right and the population is evenly split, and Prentice knows the PC Party has already lost the portion of the population that strongly supports the Wildrose position, identifying his party clearly as the only potential government that wants to do what half the population supports is smart strategically, not a major blunder.

It's said here that Prentice's goal was most likely not to woo back conservatives but to start rebuilding the progressive coalition that saved the party in 2012 and which Redford foolishly blew away with her insane policy of waging war on her strongest supporters. That's where the gong show came in!

I recognize that we all have a tendency, consciously or unconsciously, to assign the victory in an argument to the side we sympathize with more. I’m sure I'm as prone to this as anyone else, and I do think Prentice is right about debt, if not much else.

But I sure don't see this go-round as a slam-dunk victory for the Wildrose just because they have said exactly what their supporters expected them to say. Indeed, they didn't leave themselves very much room to say anything else.

So I say this round goes to Prentice. There are many more to come, and he's fighting from a long way behind thanks to the incredible incompetence of Redford and her closest supporters.

Still, yesterday's skirmish suggests that Prentice is not a bad choice to lead a party facing a desperate and well-deserved challenge.

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

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