Jim Prentice

The spectacular incompetence exhibited by the Prentice Government in its effort to curry favour with social conservatives by scuttling an opposition MLA’s private bill to protect gay-straight peer support groups in Alberta’s schools is breathtaking, reminiscent of the Redford Government’s lowlights.

This is “new management”?

Late yesterday, Premier Jim Prentice tried to press the pause button on the roiling controversy, which had seen prominent members of his own party protesting and threatening to quit, by placing third reading of the government’s Bill 10 “on hold, pending further consultation with Albertans.”

This flip will satisfy no one.

Albertans who supported Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s Bill 202 will be furious that the parliamentary manoeuvre stops her proposed policy dead in its tracks, leaving the Legislature nothing to vote on.

Social conservatives who saw the government’s replacement Bill 10 as an opportunity to sneak in a Trojan Horse that could further entrench “parental rights” in Alberta law and policy will feel cheated.

The day before — with Prentice still out of town on his better-planned mission to promote pipelines to his skeptical Central Canadian counterparts — the government tried to amend its scribbled-on-the-fly legislation so that students could have their GSAs, as long as they didn’t mind petitioning the evangelical minister of education and meeting in the basement of a run-down mall across town.

That gambit flopped, with the prominent likes of former Tory Senator Ron Ghitter, star Calgary Stampeders running back Jon Cornish and TV comedian Rick Mercer assailing the Prentice Government — or, worse, mocking it — for its tortured efforts to placate its social-conservative base.

The Prentice Tories’ short-lived off-site solution, immediately labeled “segregation” even by Alberta’s normally compliant mainstream media, was generally seen as likely to further marginalize already marginalized young people who deserve better.

But that was Wednesday. Today is Friday and everything is different again.

The colloquial advice to people who find themselves in a situation like this is to stop digging while their heads are still above ground. Yesterday’s development suggests the premier is trying to do that by calling a halt to his government’s inconsistent performance — which was helpfully chronicled yesterday by blogger Dave Cournoyer in a post that’s already out of date.

But given the powerful voter sympathy for Blakeman’s bill, which seems to have taken the PCs completely by surprise, Prentice should probably brace himself for another wave of public revulsion. If that happens, perhaps Albertans should also get ready for more flip-flopping by the premier.

All this would be hilarious is the consequences were not potentially tragic.

The really interesting question about all this is why Prentice — known as a skilled politician — has blown it so spectacularly on a mere private member’s bill disliked by a few of his most troll-like supporters? The circumstances suggest there has been a confluence of three influential factors:

First, Prentice must have lacked data. Certainly his initial moves strongly suggest he had no idea of the depth of support in Alberta for LGBTQ young people.

Alberta’s Tories are known to poll like crazy, and the answers they get help them form their responses to a variety of questions. So the level of public support for Blakeman’s bill shouldn’t have caught them off guard. They obviously failed to instruct their pollsters to ask the right questions.

I’ve been arguing for a long time that ordinary Albertans who don’t hold fundamentalist religious views that treat such things as working on the Sabbath, deciding to switch to the worship of Baal, or being born with the wrong sexual preference as grievous sins are sick and tired of the persecution of sexual minorities.

This would explain voters’ visceral reaction to the PCs’ effort to court social conservative votes by replacing Blakeman’s bill with their own mean-spirited napkin scribblings.

Second, regardless of Prentice’s reputation for careful planning, he obviously doesn’t do well flying by the seat of his pants.

This was first illustrated by his apparently off-the-cuff promise during last summer’s Tory leadership campaign to implement term limits for MLAs. He badly fumbled his response when pretty well everyone dumped on the idea as unconstitutional, although not badly enough to derail his candidacy.

There are politicians who exhibit grace under fire. Mr. Prentice isn’t one of them. Nor is anyone in his caucus — except perhaps former leadership candidate Thomas Lukaszuk, one of only three Tory MLAs to vote against the premier’s wishes. The other two were Doug Griffiths and recent recruit Ian Donovan.

Premier Prentice’s inability to deal with the unexpected turned what could have been a minor irritation into a major gong show.

Third, he’s been getting extremely bad advice from someone.

OK, the government’s decision to go after social conservative votes made sense after the apparent unravelling of the Wildrose Opposition last month. When the possibility progressive voters would vote Wildrose for the sake of change seemed to evaporate, the risk in wooing the hard so-con right decreased as well.

That was the context in which the government decided the idea of derailing Blakeman’s bill was a good idea.

But someone in the government clearly saw an opportunity to use the perceived need to respond to Bill 202 to score some additional policy points for both the social conservative and market fundamentalist factions within both of Alberta’s conservative parties.

So the authors of Bill 10 tried not only to scuttle the easy formation of gay-straight alliances in schools sought by Blakeman, they ambitiously attempted to use the controversy generated as cover to sneak in another legal opening to “parental rights.”

The term is social conservative code for laws inspired by the U.S. religious right designed to weaken the curriculum for all children, enable sexuality and AIDS education to be censored or eliminated, and pave the way for school voucher programs that divert money from public to private religious schools. These “rights” have nothing to do with the fundamental rights protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and encouraged by Bill 202.

It seems likely this hidden social conservative agenda — pushed by someone, presumably within the cabinet — is why Prentice stayed his disastrous course as long as he has.

Since bloggers are not invited to cabinet meetings, it is impossible to know for certain who came up with this idea. Perhaps it was Prentice’s own. Perhaps it was one of the members of his cabinet who publicly espouse social conservative beliefs, such as labour minister Ric McIver and the minister of education himself, Gordon Dirks.

Regardless of whom, it turned out to be a disaster. Combined with a lack of clear understanding about what the public really thought and the premier’s inability to respond intuitively to a rapidly changing situation, it created the first major crisis of his government.

The only good news for the government in this mess has been that the principal opposition party’s ranks are as thick with social conservatives as the PCs’ own, leaving Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith unable to effectively exploit the government’s floundering.

For all opposition parties, one lesson stands out: Use surprise to seize the initiative. Keep this premier off balance. He doesn’t think clearly when he’s rattled.

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

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...