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That early election: What if Premier Jim Prentice doesn't do what everyone expects?

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Jim Prentice

Alberta's Legislature resumes sitting today, and the widespread expectation is that the Progressive Conservative majority will deal peremptorily with a few pieces of Legislation, mostly insignificant, pass a budget that will be introduced on March 26, and move quickly to an early election.

That is, as they say, the conventional wisdom.

But what if Premier Jim Prentice doesn't do what everyone expects?

A few things have happened since the early-election buzz began weeks ago that might tempt Prentice to gracefully do as the Opposition demands and hold off for year or so until the "fixed election period" in cashiered premier Alison Redford's silly voting legislation swings around in the spring of 2016.

For one thing, you just never know what a government is seeing when it looks at its own confidential public opinion polls. A better-than-expected performance by the NDP? Or worse from the government's point of view, a better-than-expected performance by what's left of the Wildrose Party thanks to their cantankerous rural power base still fuming about former leader Danielle Smith's defection last December?

Regardless, I would bet you there are auguries the electorate is still more volatile than is traditional in Alberta and could turn quickly on Prentice as they turned on Redford if the planets lined up in just the wrong way from the government's perspective.

If nothing else, the harsh and nearly instant public reaction to the premier's look-in-the-mirror moment on the radio last Wednesday should give him pause for reflection.

Then there's the difficult matter of how to deal satisfactorily with Bill 10 -- which requires the government to find common ground between backers of the private member's bill it sidelined, which would have forced all publicly supported schools to allow gay-straight support groups for sexual minority children, and the government's own considerable cohort of assertive social conservatives, who just hate that idea.

Not handled in exactly the right way -- and there may be no such way -- Bill 10 could also blow up in the government’s hands in the sensitive pre-election period.

And there's the need for the government to persuade more voters that the economic crisis really is grave enough to justify whatever it is that Prentice wants to do. Why do that if you can just wait? With a little time, there's always the chance things will start to perk up on the economic front.

Such developments could all provide arguments within the private counsels of the PC Party to think twice about hurrying into an early election -- no matter what’s been said up to now.

Either way, it’s a high-stakes poker game. But if Prentice did decide to wait, well, whatever would the Opposition do then?

I'm not saying this is what Prentice is going to do -- but he wouldn't be doing his job if he weren't thinking about it. And there’s certainly nothing like a little surprise to keep your foes off balance.

Speaking of which, who expected Prentice to say yes to a meeting with the leaders of the province's principal public sector unions, as he did late yesterday?

On Friday, the presidents of Alberta's four large public service unions representing health care workers, civil servants and others requested a meeting with the premier to discuss his idea of setting up a regime for public sector bargaining that would make it easier for the government to keep a lid on wage increases in the public sector.

Mr. Prentice has been under a certain amount of pressure from the right to "be like Ralph" -- a reference to the late Ralph Klein's successful campaign as premier in the mid-1990s to pressure public sector employees into agreeing to take 5-per-cent across-the-board wage cuts.

It's early days yet, but I suspect Prentice has found this idea harder going than he imagined. For one thing, unlike the 1990s, the courts are no longer playing ball. Recent Supreme Court of Canada decisions have made it much harder for the government to arbitrarily throw out union contracts or prevent public employees from striking.

For another, Klein made it difficult for anyone else to use that strategy again when his government didn't keep the promises it made to the same unions, led now in many cases by people who were around then and have fully functioning memories.

The unions were promised by Klein that if they took the rollbacks he wanted, they'd avoid layoffs and facility closings. They took the rollback deal to save jobs. Then they got layoffs and closings anyway.

Now Prentice and his government must suffer the consequences of Klein's broken promises -- since public sector union leaders find it much more difficult to trust any PC premier, thanks to Ralph’s bad example.

Under such circumstances, it would have been easy for Prentice to tell the unions to drop dead and refuse to meet, then gin up a confrontation to justify a polarizing election. Or just try to fob them off on a couple of flunkies.

Instead, he issued a statement yesterday that said, "I was asked to meet with public sector union leaders to discuss the government's financial and labour relations intentions, and I am pleased to do so, and will convene a meeting within the next 10 days."

This is smart. Smarter than I expected Prentice's advisors would let him be. It puts him in a better position than he was in last week. It's exactly what I would have done if I were wearing the premier's cordovan deck shoes -- so this is high praise!

It might also be smart for him to put off the election now that everyone has concluded it's bound to be very soon.

If he did, Prentice could say, "I've listened to you and I've heard you, and I'm going to wait until time frame required by the election-period legislation."

Could those Wildrose supporters who are still grumpy about the December counter-coup executed by the premier and Ms. Smith stay mad for more than a year? Or would they drift back to their comfortable old political home?

It's a question worth asking. And it's a question I'd bet you the sometimes-unpredictable Jim Prentice is thinking about right now.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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