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Term limits on Alberta MLAs? 'I think Jim Prentice is trying to lose…'

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Jim Prentice

There was no orchestra at Tory leadership candidate Jim Prentice's lunchtime speech in Edmonton yesterday. But if there had been, it would have been playing "Nearer My God to Thee."

Many of the journalists who turned up for what had been billed as a major event in a sustained Twitter fusillade in the hours before the microphones were turned on were persuaded Prentice was about to announce the acquisition of a high-profile candidate, possibly former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel.

The more cynical in their number joked that the Progressive Conservative establishment's favourite in the race to replace the catastrophic Alison Redford as the province's next permanent, full-time premier would be announcing he was going to hand out free steak knives to get people to take the free Tory memberships nobody seems to want.

So there was a palpable sense of disappointment when Prentice stepped to the microphone unaccompanied by Mandel or anyone else that looked like the sort of big-name star-power candidate the former federal cabinet minister, corporate lobbyist and bank executive was supposed to be able to attract to the moribund party’s banner.

Then Prentice began to work his way through his remarks, interminably describing the dismay, the frustration, the anger, the determination to restore public faith in the PC Government, that he personally has been feeling about the recent antics of the Redford Government. Eyes in the supportive crowd of about 80 souls grew glassy as he droned through three pages of this boilerplate.

Then he reached the point where he told us what he was going to do about it, to, as he put it, ensure the highest ethical standards and accountability: "There will be term limits. A limit of two terms for the premier and three terms for MLAs."

I can't speak for others, but this was the moment that I heard a faint creaking noise far below the waterline, and felt the slightest tremor through the deck of the unsinkable Tory Titanic that Prentice insisted he still hopes to captain, despite everything.

Say what? That's unconstitutional. I mean, it’s really unconstitutional -- unconstitutional enough to make the Redford Government's recent foray into labour law look sober and cautious!

So that was the big news! Never mind the qualifiers (term limits will be grandfathered in, the limit clock only starts now) or the other promises (no holiday flights on government airplanes for anyone, ever, and a stern look at maybe selling them too, one day, yadda-yadda).

This was the plan of pure political genius that's going to woo us angry Albertans all back to the Tory Mothership? Term limits!

People! How lame is that?

Notwithstanding the fact term limits are a bad idea -- we the sovereign voters, thank you very much, will limit the PCs' term in the traditional way, through the ballot box, to about 44 years -- cooked up by disgruntled right-wing Americans to keep popular progressive politicians from using democracy to hang around the way Franklin Roosevelt did ...

Never mind the fact this policy was apparently designed to woo back a sector of the electorate that's long gone, and not to Saskatchewan -- the wackiest fringe of the wackiest fringe of the Wildrose Party, whose leaders have never advocated this policy …

It's simply not on.

The reason? It's right there in black and white in the Constitution Act, 1982, Part 1, Section 3 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms: "Every citizen of Canada has the right to vote in an election of members of the House of Commons or of a legislative assembly and to be qualified for membership therein."

Every citizen. Even those Jim Prentice thinks ought not to be allowed to ask voters nicely for a fourth term in office.

Note also that the Constitution Act, 1867 assures us we will have "a Constitution similar in Principle to that of the United Kingdom." And, by the way, that Section 33, the famed "Notwithstanding Clause" of our Charter, cannot be applied to Section 3, Democratic Rights, whether Jim Prentice or the Alberta Progressive Conservative Party feel like it or not.

This is a done deal. Term limits are simply not being placed on members of the Legislative Assembly of Alberta or any other Canadian province.

Good lord, how dumb do they think we are? That’s probably more complimentary than the other question we might consider asking under these circumstances, How dumb are they?

I was shaken out of thoughts like these when Prentice thundered: "We can take back our party, and we can set it right, my friends!" All around me, the room was full of many of the same Tory hacks we've seen at dozens of government functions over the past decade.

Moments later, Prentice backpedalled a little from the stern promise of his speech, telling reporters: "It can be done in terms of party policy. It could be a combination of the two." True enough, I guess, and we all know how well that's likely to work.

"It works in the States," he also observed, a titch defensively. But this isn't the States: we don't have a constitutional right to bear arms and we do have a constitutional right to run for MLA as many times as the voters will elect us. Get used to it.

Even the other PC leadership candidates were gobsmacked by this brainstorm. As Thomas Lukaszuk told the Calgary Herald: "It defies tradition. It defies the law. It defies fundamental values of democracy. It's just bizarre."

It's hard to disagree with that, but I’m going to give the last word tonight to Lou Arab, union organizer, New Democrat and inveterate Tweeter: "I think @JimPrentice is trying to lose. Nothing else makes sense."

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

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