Ask the typical Albertan who is not a member of the chattering classes if they've ever heard of Jim Prentice, and they'll likely say something like this: "The name sounds familiar. I oughtta know who that is!"
Alberta's Progressive Conservative Dynasty, fallen on hard times after two years under the remarkably tone-deaf leadership of Alison Redford, has persuaded itself that Prentice, a senior banking executive and pipeline lobbyist who used to be a federal Conservative cabinet minister, is the answer to all of the party's problems.
Prentice, according to a host of anonymous sources quoted by mainstream media reporters who can't manage to pin him down on an actual confirmation, has apparently come to the same conclusion. Or maybe it's just the same incredibly busy nameless source who can only be quoted on condition of anonymity.
Well, whatever. The praise heaped on Mr. …. what was his name again? … Prentice in these past few days has been pretty remarkable.
The National Post, for example, reported that a significant portion of the desperate Progressive Conservative caucus, spooked by some of Redford's recent bad polls and calamitous press clippings, now support Prentice's candidacy.
"His credentials make him ideal for the Alberta job," the Post reported breathlessly. "Prentice is highly regarded inside and outside the province. Although he's considered a Red Tory, he's also respected by those further to the right."
But if the Post stenographer's heart is going pitty-pat, neocon drivelists like the Sun News Network's Lorne Gunter are practically swooning. Terming the 57-year-old undeclared candidate a superstar, an A-lister, a front-line centre (I'm not making any of this up), Gunter hyperventilated, "if, as expected, former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice formally enters the race next week, the Tories' leadership vacuum will be filled. Instantly."
Prentice is, according to Gunter, "a stellar talent" … "Wildrose's worst nightmare" … "a top flight pro" … someone who "changes everything." You get the picture.
Open any newspaper -- or almost any news website -- in Alberta these days, and you are likely to read such superlatives about Prentice.
If things keep on like this, the Progressive Conservatives will not recoup much from their $50,000 entry fee for candidates in the party's leadership race because none of the usual suspects from within the Tory caucus will see much percentage in challenging a runner as far to the front as the now-sainted Prentice appears to be.
Capable but uninspiring politicians like Finance Minister Doug Horner, Labour Minister Thomas Lukaszuk and Infrastructure Minister Ric McIver, to name but a few, will likely decide to hang onto their deposits and their cabinet perks and let the party do where it's already decided anyway.
Municipal Affairs Minister Ken Hughes is still the only candidate officially in the race. Despite his defiant denial he will let it be a coronation, he could yet pull out if the contest appears hopeless. Here's a bet he's thinking about it.
To hear the national media talking, you’d think being a banker was something that would set Albertans' hearts aflutter.
Not to be rude, but are these people serious? Or are they all drinking each other's bathwater?
Yes, Prentice has held a lot of federal cabinet posts -- industry, environment and Indian Affairs.
But, ask yourself, did you ever hear of him doing anything -- good or bad -- in any of those positions? I didn't think so. In fact, it's almost always the case on Prentice's watch that nothing much seems to happen -- not necessarily a bad thing, of course, given the party he's associated with -- except his inevitable promotion.
Oh, Prentice is a charming fellow, alright. I've heard it said no one who meets the man can come away disliking him -- or without the conviction that he heard what they were saying, felt their pain, understood it, and wanted to do the right thing to make it go away.
But a superstar? Well, being able always to give that impression is a talent of sorts for politicians, but it may not be one that wears very well.
It's true, he's managed to win all but the first election he ran in -- when he was beaten in a Calgary riding in the 1986 Alberta election by New Democrat Bob Hawkesworth. But what happens when Prentice has to make a tough choice? What happens if, God forbid, he has to tell one of those people to whom he listened so sympathetically that the answer is No?
Alas, whether you are a leader of the right or the left, saying no is inevitably one of the responsibilities of leadership.
I suspect that Prentice, whom I have never met, is a genuinely nice person -- even if he is paid handsomely to work for an industry that, as Woody Guthrie famously put it, will rob you with a fountain pen. Especially if you're, uh, "a starvin’ farmer."
But is he the answer to all of the PC Dynasty's big problems, though? I doubt it.
In fact, I think the Alberta Conservatives are making a big mistake putting all their eggs in a basket held by a fellow who left politics almost four years ago and is a complete unknown to most ordinary Albertans -- the kind of people who loved and voted enthusiastically for the deeply flawed but often decisive Ralph Klein.
Moreover, as a politician associated by the those members of the public who are paying attention with the same branch of the party as Alison Redford, apparent MLA for Calgary-Palm Springs, who in turn is suspected by some to be holding her actual Calgary-Elbow seat for the anointed one, it's fair to wonder if Prentice will be willing to repudiate her record with sufficient vigour to suit the cranky voters of Alberta.
Time will tell, but I don't think that Prentice will turn out to be the superstar the Tories think he is, or that he's anything like the Wildrose Party's worst nightmare, or that of any other opposition party.
Remember, just to pluck an example from recent history, when Kim Campbell was selected by federal PC electors in 1993 to replace Brian Mulroney, she looked very much like the answer to all of the now-defunct federal party's troubles.
August 1993 polls showed Campbell to be the most popular Canadian prime minister in 30 years, with a 51 per cent approval rating. By election night on October 25, though, her support had tanked. The PCs were swept away, reduced to only two seats.
The worst nightmare Alberta Tories seem to be able to imagine is that their next leader turns out to be a Harry Strom, the last Social Credit premier before Peter Lougheed established the PC dynasty that still rules 43 years later.
Anything is possible in politics, of course. And maybe Prentice is exactly what the PCs are looking for. It is true, he will have some time to try to turn things around.
But it's just as likely they're betting the farm on a politician who could turn out to be the next Kim Campbell, or at least little more than another uninspiring front-runner like Gary Mar or Jim Dinning.
Whatever happens, at least we Albertans will still have Campbell -- after all, she's just been hired to run the University of Alberta's neoconservative boot camp, the so-called Peter Lougheed Leadership Institute. Perhaps she's been hired just in time to witness first hand the demise of the Peter Lougheed leadership line!
As for Prentice, well, that remains to be seen.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.
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