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Alberta's mirror meme: Premier Jim Prentice could have avoided it just by being more like Ralph

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Mirror Rally Scene

So much for Jim Prentice taking the advice to be like Ralph!

One of the notable things about Ralph Klein was his ability to admit from time to time that he was wrong or had done something wrong.

It was part of the man's charm, and one of the keys to his political success, as he most famously demonstrated after his slurred rant at the Herb Jamieson Centre men's hostel in Edmonton on Dec. 12, 2001 -- just another night of over-the-top drunkenness in a life that had seen a few of them -- and the renowned apology that followed.

Two days after The Incident -- in which a sloppy drunk Klein berated some of the hostel's residents and threw pocket change at them before skedaddling in his government limo -- the premier held a tearful news conference, apologized and promised to try to quit drinking.

Whether or not he actually quit was the topic of a certain amount of controversy at the time, but he was never again seen in public with a drink in his hand. As a result of the apparently heartfelt apology, ordinary Albertans forgave him, and lickety-split.

This highlights a couple of differences with the latest occupant of Klein's old office.

We wouldn’t expect a tightly controlled, impeccably groomed and gym-toned politician like Jim Prentice to show up snockered at the men’s shelter to berate the occupants for being poor, and that's just as well, but he also seems to have a problem admitting fault when it would be the most appropriate and sensible thing to do.

In this, I suspect, Premier Prentice is following the advice of professional political advisors like the ones at Navigator Ltd. and on his own staff, who on the political right nowadays follow the precedent and advice of the U.S. Republicans and hold that a politician must never admit to being wrong, and must therefore never apologize for anything.

To admit error -- to flip-flop in the lexicon of American politics -- is to show weakness, and weakness is blood in the water to cranky voters, or so goes the theory. Klein proved it was baloney, at least in Alberta.

Such fear of flip-floppery, though, would explain part of Prentice's reluctance to apologize and thereby admit the obvious -- that he insulted a lot of Albertans when he blamed them for the province's current financial situation in his now-famous mirror moment last week. His exact words: "In terms of who is responsible, we need only look in the mirror."

Half-heartedly in his defence, there would have been a certain amount of risk to the premier in saying sorry and admitting that it wasn't ordinary Albertans who demanded the tax regime that has contributed mightily to the province's present fiscal state, but the 43-year-old Progressive Conservative Government Prentice leads.

Blaming ordinary Albertans was, in fact, what Prentice was doing when he accused us of wanting the best of everything but not being prepared to pay what it really costs.

After all, the key point in Prentice's program for Alberta -- presumably at the heart of his still-to-be-detailed Ten Year Plan -- is maintaining by far the lowest business taxes in Canada, continuing to tilt the income tax field heavily in favour of the wealthy and giving away our resources to foreign energy companies.

Business-taxpayers, extremely rich people, foreign energy corporations and the market-fundamentalist "think tanks" and AstroTurf groups they bankroll support such policies, of course, and they are the sorts of people Prentice obviously likes to hang with.

But reasonably scientific polling shows such policies are not a priority for a significant majority of Albertans, although you can see why Prentice might be reluctant to admit it. After all, his claim is a key part of the yarn that his advisors have spun to preserve those policies in the face of oil prices that have, inconveniently but not unexpectedly, cycled lower.

A poll by Environics Research Group in February 2013 showed 72 per cent of respondents said they favour returning to a progressive income tax and abandoning Alberta's so-called flat tax.

Environics also reported 78 per cent of the poll's respondents favoured higher taxes on corporations and high-income earners, and that 71 per cent agreed with the statement that Albertans are not getting their fair share from the sale of resources.

Still, an apology, however qualified, would have been a more diplomatic way to deal with the problem encountered suddenly by Prentice when he ad-libbed the remark about mirrors on a radio call-in show last Wednesday, and it would certainly have made the problem go away more swiftly.

Instead, the premier chose to pretend that he hadn't really said what he said, that he didn't mean it, and that he was taken out of context. A lawyer's answer every one.

It's important to remember that it is possible to be taken out of context, and journalists often do this, so it is a plausible excuse. But in the case of Prentice's remark, the facts, his intentions and the context are all clear.

He said it on the air and was heard by thousands of people. A recording of his remarks is still available from the CBC.

While only Prentice knows what he really meant, the meaning of his statement seems plain on its face, and moreover is consistent with the message box he's been using for weeks.

And he was properly quoted at length by almost everyone who covered the story. His broader context is also clear. Again, there's nothing different in this comment from what he's been saying except that he made his meaning explicit, rather than implicit.

So the entire set of excuses does not wash.

Under such circumstances, his failure to apologize has fuelled a popular meme -- ordinary citizens literally holding up mirrors to mock and shame Prentice by reflecting back the economic sins of his PC government.

About 350 people* with hand mirrors -- and a few daring ones with large wall mirrors -- showed up on the steps of the Legislature yesterday afternoon, not bad for an event that was organized on social media over two days.

I suspect this will continue throughout the coming election campaign, with mirror toting citizens at every appearance Prentice makes.

It's too late now, but it all could have been avoided with an apology, even a tearless one. But unlike Ralph Klein, bank vice-presidents, lawyers and former members of the Harper cabinet like Mr. Prentice don't do apologies, do they?

This post, along with lots of photos, also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

* I counted them off, as I've done with crowds for years, and I'm confident this number is very close. The Edmonton Journal, which consistently underestimates crowds at events I have attended, said 150. I assume this is the result of not knowing how to estimate the size of outdoor crowds, which always look smaller than they are, and not malice.

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