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The boss has gone crazy! He's giving away PC Party memberships!

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Jim Prentice

Holy Cow! Not only does Alberta Tory leadership frontrunner Jim Prentice admit his campaign has been giving away free memberships, but he says the idea's OK with him and he intends to keep on doing it!

Here's what Mr. Prentice told the Calgary Herald a day after his leadership campaign was busted handing out free membership cards to would-be supporters: "There will be free memberships."

Seriously? I confess I didn't think it was possible for the Progressive Conservative leadership campaign season to get any stranger than it has, and that's when it did with this startling revelation.

Prentice -- a former federal cabinet minister, well-connected corporate lobbyist and banking executive -- phoned up the Calgary Herald yesterday told its reporter that, yeah, everybody does it, so why not him too? (Children, do you remember what your Mama told you you when you tried that argument on her?)

"My perspective on all of this is we want as many people taking part in the democratic process as possible," Prentice advised the no doubt dumbfounded Herald reporter, according to the story the publication rushed into print last night. "They need to have a membership card to vote and what I want to see is as many Albertans as possible taking part."

Well, what could be more democratic than that? I'll buy the votes, and you cast 'em!

And while this may or may not be a common practice in some leadership races, it's not true that everyone’s doing it in this particular race, if only because candidates Ric McIver's and Thomas Lukaszuk's campaigns don't have the money.

In fact, McIver, a Calgary MLA and former minister in fired-premier Alison Redford's cabinet, was quick off the mark, accusing the frontrunner of buying votes for $10 each. Lukaszuk, an Edmonton MLA and former Redford Minister, was a little less inflammatory, telling the paper he intends to continue selling memberships and hopes the others do too.

Even the party's spokesperson, executive director Kelley Charlebois, obviously found the practice a little hinky. "The party doesn’t condone the activity," he told the Herald. "I certainly personally don't believe it is a successful way to go, but it's not breaking any rules." (Emphasis added.)

Prentice is the candidate with the deepest pockets, thanks to his support in corporate circles. So does that mean it's finally become acceptable practice to do what, hitherto, only tinfoil-hat-wearing lefties like me have been claiming goes on? That is to say, just using corporate dough straight up to buy votes outright!

About the least you can say is that if Prentice wins the race, as is widely expected, the outcome will be tainted in the minds of many Albertans.

It also blows to smithereens Prentice's benchmark, set back in June when he opened his Edmonton campaign office, of 100,000 new memberships. So what if there are 100,000 new memberships? The obvious question for a cynical public will be how many of them were bought directly by the Prentice campaign, and not paid for by real supporters.

And it sure sounds as if all three candidates together haven't sold anything like the number of membership they need to make it look as if the Tories are still the Natural Governing Party of Alberta. Indeed, I'm starting to think my prediction of 45,000 memberships sold by the race's end was wildly optimistic.

This also raises some interesting questions for those of us who don't support the PCs, and never will.

Do we phone up the Prentice campaign and ask for our free membership -- and then vote for the candidate that has the best position on, say, public service pensions? As of yesterday, that would be McIver, so be careful!

Do we sign up 20,000 leftward leaning Albertans and colonize the party, or at least tell its leadership candidates what they have to do? You'll recall that progressive voters were accused of doing just that when Alison Redford was elected, although her subsequent policies should have laid that notion to rest.

It's hard to imagine that this sudden and unexpected revelation -- when claiming the giveaways were just a mistake by a junior staffer might have made much more sense -- is going to help Prentice's campaign, which up to now was coasting to an easy victory.

So here's a conspiracy theory for you -- just wait a sec while I put on that tinfoil hat … Is it possible Prentice wants to lose, and this is the only way he can think of to do it now that it's too late to pull out of the race?

This bizarre announcement does, in all seriousness, change the dynamics of the race, possibly considerably. And every day another news story breaks about former premier Redford's spending habits, the leadership of the PC Party becomes less of a prize.

Maybe this was the only thing Prentice could think of to get out of Dodge before the new sheriff rides into town?

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

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