Jim Prentice was a lonely voice for decency in Harper's government

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There is a convention that when a person dies, one finds kind words to say about them -- even if many of their views and actions might have been anathema.

When this writer did just that in the case of the late Finance Minister Jim Flaherty, a number of rabble readers reacted with scorn.

Doing the same for Jim Prentice, who died on Thursday night in a plane crash near Kelowna, British Columbia, at the age of 60, may elicit the same reaction.

But here goes, nonetheless.

Although he was an Albertan, Jim Prentice did not start his political career in the 1990s with the Alberta-based, bad-boy, rebel Reform Party.

He was an old-school Progressive Conservative (PC), who sought the leadership of the PC party when it had been reduced to a rump. He only became an ally of Stephen Harper when Harper's Reformers and the PCers merged to form the new Conservative Party (minus the Progressive modifier).

For a number of years, Prentice was the leading one-time PCer in Harper's cabinet. Peter MacKay was the better-known ex-PCer. He was the last leader of the older party and had engineered the merger with Harper's party.

But Prentice had the bigger and more influential role in the Conservative government.

Stephen Harper eschewed the idea of having a deputy prime minister (a Pierre Trudeau innovation), but insiders considered that Prentice took on that role, de facto, if not de jure.

Jim Prentice brought a practical, balanced outlook to a cabinet that had more than its share of zealots and ideologues. The former PCer's more business-like approach contrasted with his boss's near-paranoid, controlling and almost dictatorial style.

Prentice held three senior portfolios in Harper's minority governments: Indian and Northern Affairs, Industry and, most notably, Environment.

Harper changed environment ministers almost as often as some of us change shirts. Among the hapless occupants of what was inevitably a thankless portfolio -- in a government that, at heart, considered environmentalism to be at best a nuisance, and, at worst, treason -- were: a confused and ineffectual Rona Ambrose, a mealy-mouthed and awkward Peter Kent and a sneering John Baird.

Prentice was the only one of Harper's environment ministers to achieve any success -- a minor miracle, considering the government's ideological bent.

When she learned of Prentice's death, Green Party leader Elizabeth May issued the following statement:

"As Environment Minister, Jim showed genuine concern in protecting the environment. Professionally, I will remember him fondly for his principled stance in rejecting the Prosperity Mine near Fish Lake, British Columbia in 2010."

The fact that, as environment minister Prentice even agreed to appear on a television program with David Suzuki speaks volumes about his distance from the prevailing anti-environmental stance of the Harper regime.

And environmentalism wasn't the only area where Prentice departed from the Harper consensus.

Former New Democratic Party Deputy Leader Libby Davies posted the following on learning about Jim Prentice's death.

"Saddened to hear about the plane crash and death of Jim Prentice. He was a very decent man and well respected in the House of Commons by all sides. He always was respectful of others -- including [MPs] from other parties. For that he raised the bar in politics. I recall he voted for same-sex marriage when many of his colleagues did not. My sincere condolences to his family, colleagues and friends, for their loss."

Anyone who has ever met Davies will know that she is not one to truck in insincere compliments. The fact that she moved so quickly to praise Jim Prentice is testimony to the lasting impression he made on both political friends and adversaries.

Prentice quite likely decided to quit the Harper government because he could no longer tolerate its increasingly über-partisan nature.

He had a pretty soft landing after federal politics: a cushy and very well paid senior position in banking. Interestingly, in that capacity, he was all business. Reports from inside the corporate world were that Prentice did not make an effort, at the bank, to play the role of the progressive friend of the environment and Indigenous people.

In any event, he gave up his comfortable corporate perch to try to rescue the faltering Alberta Progressive Conservative party. That turned out to be a doomed mission.

His short tenure as Premier, which was capped on the night of New Democrat Rachel Notley's victory by his petulant resignation not only from the PC leadership but from the seat he had just won, does not do Prentice's memory justice.

Better to remember him as a federal parliamentarian and cabinet minister who tried to be something of a decent person in an era that did not value decency.

For that, he will indeed be missed.

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

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