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Jim Prentice's tepid pre-budget message undermined premier's case for an early election, but so what?

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Jim Prentice

By noticeably dialling down his rhetoric about the severity of Alberta's financial crisis in Wednesday's fireside chat, didn't Jim Prentice seriously undermine his case for an early election?

All the key messages we've heard up to now in the Alberta premier's campaign to justify calling an election a year earlier than the spring 2016 "fixed election period set by his government's own legislation were there in Wednesday's televised message to Albertans.

But the lack of force with which his previously apocalyptic talking points were delivered was noticeable. The tone, as noted in this space yesterday, was tepid!

Back on Feb. 27, Prentice said the provincial budget Finance Minister Robin Campbell would be tabling today would be so radical and far-reaching Albertans would simply demand the opportunity for an election in which they could endorse or reject it.

"This will be the most significant budget in modern times in the province," he told the audience of a talk radio program in Calgary. "It will have impacts … on every single person in the province."

"I promise you it will take about 20 minutes after this budget is put on the table before people say, 'Well, just a minute here. Did we agree to that? When did we agree to that?'"

As a result, Prentice argued then, "it's pretty clear in the circumstances that we're in, that whoever is the premier had better have a mandate. He better have the authority to do what needs to be done."

Wednesday evening, however, the sense of manufactured crisis and even the M-word were all but absent from Prentice's mild speechifying. Instead, he told us, we are dealing with "something essential, something important to say. … "

The grave crisis that a few days ago his supporters were insisting must not go to waste had been downgraded to "a critical issue," and, what’s more, one that would actually go critical only "if we don't act."

"You do not want me to be impulsive," Prentice explained. "You want thoughtful decisions for the future. I share your belief that our decisions need to be measured and fair."

Let's just stop the tape there and think about this. I believe Prentice is telling the unvarnished truth when he says Albertans don’t want him to be impulsive. What's more, I'd bet he has public opinion research showing that something impulsive -- say, like an unneeded election a full year before the PCs' own legislation requires one -- is exactly the kind of thing they don't want.

I’d be prepared to bet, indeed, that the feeling this is the wrong time for an election is almost universal among Albertans of all political stripes.

After all, by custom, practice and according to the fixed-election-period legislation enacted by premier Alison Redford's government in 2011, which remains on the books, the next general election is due in Alberta between March 1 and May 31, 2016. That is to say, this time next year.

All Albertans, that is, except the premier's inner circle of political advisors. They see the opportunity to have a blank cheque handed to the premier’s political account before any opposition party has the opportunity to make the case to the public it's a viable alternative to the tired, all-but-unchanged, 43-year-plus PC dynasty. That could be the New Democrats, the Alberta Party, what's left of the Wildrose Party or even the stumblebum Alberta Liberals.

So the Prentice Brain Trust is determined to strike now, before the iron cools, which it is bound to do quickly.

The whole PC strategy seems to be based on the idea that having no plan except the same old promises repeated every time a new Tory premier hoves into view is no problem, as long as no one else has a better plan. And the best way to make sure the main opposition party didn't have a better plan was to take it over -- an effort so important it required behind-the-scenes manipulation by Preston Manning himself.

Obviously, that's not going to work with the NDP. There’s just no way Rachel Notley, Brian Mason and the rest of them are going to end up on the PC backbenches. So with the New Democrats showing life in the polls, minute as their chances of forming a government may be, pressure for an early vote remains.

I'd also bet you that the same public opinion research told Prentice and his strategists that many of their key messages simply weren't playing in Ponoka, that Albertans aren't buying the apocalyptic tone they've been hearing up to now and don't like lots of other things about this government.

They didn't like the sneaky Wildrose Party takeover -- with or without Manning's help.

They didn't like the way Prentice and his education minister, Gordon Dirks, tried to duck MLA Laurie Blakeman's gay-straight alliance legislation.

They sure didn't like being told to look in the mirror, as if they'd caused the financial problems of the last 43 years.

And they aren't going to like it when they figure out the ballyhooed reorganization of Alberta Health Services is all smoke and mirrors and no real change at all.

It was the realization that the end-times rhetoric wasn’t working, it's said here, that was the impetus for the mild tone Prentice took in his fireside chat.

What Albertans would like is the chance to see Prentice's government in action. In other words, to most Albertans, his record is more important than his rhetoric!

And that, of course, is precisely why they're not likely to get the chance to judge Prentice on his record.

The conventional wisdom this week is that he'll go to the Lieutenant-Governor on April 6 with the election early in May -- even though Wednesday's $80,000 TV message, paid for by all of us, shows there s no need for an election at all right now.

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

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