Jim Prentice's Magic Mirror

Wicked Queen to Mirror: “Mirror, mirror coin machine, am I still the cutest queen?”

Mirror to Wicked Queen: “You are now, but wise up fast! Snow White will soon go whizzing past!”

Fractured Fairy Tales, 1959

The brouhaha about Jim Prentice’s tone-deaf pronouncement on province-wide radio that Alberta’s economic woes are not his fault or the fault of the long-in-the-tooth dynasty he leads, but the digitized peasantry’s, seems to have caught the premier and his Progressive Conservative government flat-footed.

And no wonder! He and his flunkies have been saying essentially the same thing for weeks with no blowback from Albertans and plenty of good reviews from the people that matter to them — bankers, professional pundits, newspaper owners, PC Party big shots, Rotarians, Chambers of Commerce, Fraser Institute apparatchiks and the like.

It’s all been part of their pre-budget, pre-election expectation-management message box that describes the economic impact of cyclically lower oil prices in the grimmest possible terms to persuade us to knuckle under and take the market fundamentalist shock treatments the premier and the Fraser Institute prescribe.

Well, Albertans have had sudden mood swings before — as former premier Alison Redford learned to her dismay.

But the moment at which Prentice seems to have run afoul of popular sentiment was when he switched from implying that we Albertans are responsible for the current economic state of the province because we want quality health care and education, to explicitly stating that this was so.

That happened during a lunch-hour CBC radio call-in program broadcast province-wide on Wednesday, and it certainly wasn’t intentional. Rather, the premier was staying pretty much within his expectation-management message box when he clumsily ad-libbed: “In terms of who is responsible, we need only look in the mirror. Basically, all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs.”

Prentice is a cold fish, and an evasive one. I suspect frustration with that has been building among Albertans of all political stripes who had hoped for a return to something like the personal warmth of Ralph Klein, whether or not they supported the neoliberal Shock Doctrine of the Klein Era. But if they’d been persuaded the former banker and federal cabinet minister was just the man of provide it, they are being disappointed.

Notwithstanding his nicely cut suits and the distinguished frosting of grey in his mane of hair, Prentice has turned out to be the most charmless premier of Alberta since E.C. Manning!

Whatever caused it, the dam burst with his revealingly insensitive slip about our need to look in the mirror to find the true villain of Alberta’s financial state, not to mention the cause of the public’s suddenly insecure state of mind — both of which, it can be persuasively argued, are in fact the result of mismanagement by the Progressive Conservative government.

And this from a guy who just used his flat-tax savings to buy a $60,000 classic used T-Bird for his grandson! The insensitivity, not to mention the sense of casual entitlement at the top we were supposed to have put behind us with the departure of Alison Redford, left a lot of Albertans gasping for breath.

The rage welled up first on Twitter Wednesday evening with the #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans hashtag and went from there.

Indeed, the fury continues to percolate. Some bright sparks cooked up a plan to call on Albertans to turn up on the steps of the Legislature Saturday at 1 p.m. with mirrors in their hands to let the premier know what they think. And Opposition political parties were soon emailing fund-raising letters to supporters based on the premier’s gaffe.

It made a lot of Albertans all the madder that this glib shot was made at the folks Prentice expects with a reasonable degree of confidence to re-elect his Progressive Conservative Party, nearly 44 years in command of the Alberta economy, to another massive majority.

The government’s initial reaction seemed to be panicky, and certainly wasn’t particularly clear headed.

Health Minister Stephen Mandel and Finance Minister Robin Campbell were first out the gate with an instant news conference in Calgary, supposedly about the budget, at which they maintained Prentice’s commentary had been taken out of context. (“Out of context,” it should be noted here for those of you without a glossary of journalistic terms at hand, is generally used in discussions of media coverage to mean, “I wish I hadn’t said that.” Or, in this case, “We sure wish our boss hadn’t said that.”)

Premier Prentice himself made the same excuse yesterday to a friendly audience at the annual market-fundamentalist bunfest organized in Ottawa by E.C’s son Preston Manning, the current godfather of neoliberalism in Canada.

The remnants of the Alberta Public Affairs Bureau were obviously working overtime too. They churned out a three-sentence, 105-word press release announcing the Budget Speech would be on March 26, information the chattering classes had not up to then received, obviously hoping to draw some attention from the premier.

Prentice’s first instinct seems to have been to dash immediately to a friendly Calgary Herald columnist to explain that, of course he didn’t mean it. “I’ve never said Albertans are the problem. I’ve never, ever said that or anything like that,” Don Braid quoted the premier saying. “What I’ve said is that Albertans have to be part of the solution.”

The Herald also provided a sympathetic editorial suggesting the premier’s faux pas was the result of stress.

As for the rest of the media, the Edmonton Journal huffily complained, they were being dodged by the premier, who apparently didn’t want to answer the kind of questions ordinary reporters throw at politicians in distress.

The Opposition, especially the New Democratic Party led by Rachel Notley, naturally did their best to exploit the rare opportunity presented to them by Prentice. The NDP’s press release was widely quoted in the media. In it, Notley said:

“When Albertans look in the mirror … they see someone who is working harder than ever to make ends meet. They see someone who doesn’t want their loved ones suffering as they wait to be seen for unending hours in an emergency room. They see someone who cares that their kids get a quality education and have a bright future ahead of them.

“Perhaps we should be asking what Prentice would see if he looked in the mirror,” she continued. “He would see the leader of a tired 43-year-old government that has squandered our resource wealth. He would see a leader who is telling Albertans they will pay more to get less, while giving their money away in tax breaks to big banks, large corporations and high-income Albertans. He would see a leader who insists that Albertans have enjoyed the ‘best of everything,’ while turning a blind eye to our bursting emergency rooms, overcrowded schools and seniors waiting for a long-term care bed.”

I’ve quoted Notley at length because I couldn’t have said it better myself.

The NDP obviously hopes, to stick with the magic mirror metaphor, that Albertans will ponder Prentice’s illuminating slip and conclude Notley, rather like Snow White, really is the fairest of them all, and thus allow her to go whizzing past.

That would be right and just, and one is entitled to hope. Still, we should probably do a little expectation management of our own.

Prentice may not be a warm and fuzzy guy, but he is a highly disciplined politician. This is his first major blunder since last summer’s foolishness about term limits. He is unlikely to make this particular mistake again.

Unfortunately, after the March 26 Budget Speech and the early election expected to come right after, he may once again have more than seven dwarves in his caucus.

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

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...