What Happened to Jim Prentice?

Jim Prentice was heralded as the “messiah” for the Progressive Conservative Association of Alberta.Jim Prentice

After Alison Redford’s resignation, the party was in ruins and seemed headed for certain defeat in the next election. Rumblings began to indicate that Jim Prentice might be willing to leave his comfortable job as Vice President at CIBC to run for the leadership of the sinking party.

Almost one year ago today, Jim Prentice made it official – he was in. He proceeded to trample Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk on his way to becoming PC leader and Premier. Everything was looking up for him and his party. The poll numbers had rebounded and his party won four by-elections (including his own) in October 2014.

Fast forward to May 5th, 2015. Speaking to a room of just a couple of dozen people, Prentice was fighting back tears as he gave his farewell speech as leader, Premier, and MLA of a constituency that hadn’t even finished counting its ballots. The man who seemed to destined to romp to a massive victory was the one who ended the 44 year PC dynasty as they were reduced to the third party in the Legislature. Jim Prentice was the one left holding the bag.

How did it happen?

Jim Prentice was a politician who aimed high. Upon his election as leader of the PC Party, it was obvious who he was targeting – the Wildrose and its supporters. Prentice was involved in the federal Progressive Conservative/Canadian Alliance merger in the early 2000s and it seemed clear that he needed something similar to happen provincially between his PCs and the Wildrose Party. Alison Redford’s coalition of teachers, progressives, and red tories was in flames so it seemed that the most obvious way to keep the PC juggernaut on track was the unite the right provincially.

The Wooing of Wildrose

It all started so promising. Prentice started a “De-Redfordization” process early in his reign. He sold the government planes that had been misused by her regime, dropped some of Redford’s unpopular bills (Bills 9, 10, and 45), moved her biggest boosters to the backbenches, stopped the closure of Michener Centre in Red Deer, and cancelled the inane license plate re-design. All of these easy wins were a clear statement that Alberta is under “New Management” was were taken from the Wildrose playbook.

Prentice picked noted social conservative Gordon Dirks (a Grant Devine era Saskatchewan cabinet minister) to run in Redford’s vacated constituency. This was a clear message to Wildrose supporters and members that this was no longer Redford’s party and they would be feel comfortable in the Prentice PC party.

The Liberals exploited the social progressive/social conservative split in Prentice’s PCs by introducing Bill 202 which mandated that any student who wants to start a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) could not be stopped by school administration or their school board. The party seemed to be completely unable to present a cogent response to this bill. Danielle Smith’s Wildrose generally supported it. The PCs eventually replaced Bill 202 with Bill 10 but there were substantial difference between Bill 202 and the original version of Bill 10. The unamended Bill 10 allowed a school or school board to stop a GSA but provided the student a channel – the courts – to challenge the decision. The PCs faced serious criticism for this version of the bill and they eventually had to amend the bill back to something resembling the original Bill 202.

The wooing of Wildrose members and supporters seemed to be paying off on November 24th, 2014 when Wildrose MLAs Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan crossed the floor to the Tories.  As an up and comer in the Wildrose and a personal confidante to then Wildrose leader Danielle Smith, Towle’s floor crossing seemed like a stunning betrayal of her friend and a significant blow to the Wildrose. Ian Donovan was a lesser known MLA but, as a social conservative, it was seen as a broadening of the PC base. Danielle Smith said that Towle and Donovan “will have to answer for their actions both in their constituencies and in the legislature.” On Towle, she said “We were friends, and I say that in the past tense.”

On December 17th, 2014, leader of the Official Opposition Danielle Smith and eight other Wildrose MLAs (including the majority of their front bench) crossed en masse to join the PC caucus in one of Alberta’s most shocking political developments. It appeared to be a master stroke by Prentice as it was anticipated that it would rip the heart out of the opposition Wildrose. Smith stated that she joined the PCs because she felt that they had co-opted the Wildrose agenda and that she could not in good conscience provide a strong opposition to them. Smith had also recently faced a significant rebuke from her own party in their rejection of including LGBT as a protected group in their constitution.

Albertans were not amused with the floor crossing. In fact, they were outright indignant about the development. Danielle Smith was the first person to bathe in the wrath of Albertans. Her floor crossing appeared to be a decision made of opportunism – especially after her criticism of Towle just weeks before. Albertans appreciated the effectiveness of the opposition that her caucus provided and didn’t appreciate seeing the first Leader of the Official Opposition in Canadian history jump ship to the governing party.

In spite of how angry Albertans were about the floor crossing, the PCs got a bounce in the polls. They looked to be  cruising to victory on election day (which appeared to be coming sooner rather than later).

Jim Prentice had a template for a merger that proved successful with the federal Canadian Alliance/PC merger. He could have put out a formal plan for merger between the two parties and negotiate in good faith between the two parties. He didn’t use that template. He took a shortcut and the incredibly hard feelings left behind with the remaining Wildrose supporters would bite him later.

The Ides of March

March was the beginning of the end for the PC dynasty.

In an interview with CBC Radio, Jim Prentice seemed to blame Albertans for the fiscal mess that the province was facing. He seemed to discount the role of PC government fiscal decisions in causing the fiscal crunch. #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans instantly became a twitter sensation and it showed that Prentice had a propensity for making unforced errors.

PC nomination scandals in Edmonton Meadowlark and Edmonton Ellerslie only compounded the Prentice’s problems. There were allegations of bribery in both nomination races.

On March 26th, 2015, the government revealed the dreaded “radical” budget that Prentice had referred to in various media appearances. It had dozens and dozens of tax increases including a health levy, a progressive income tax, an increase of sin taxes and gas tax, and a cut to the tax credit for charitable donations. The average family would be on the hook for hundreds if not thousands of additional taxes and fees each year. It froze spending in education and cut spending in health care. There would be no change to the corporate tax rate or to oil and gas royalties. This was not the kind of budget that politicians choose to introduce just prior to an election. It was an odd choice. Maybe they were trying to capitalize on the fact that the Wildrose Party was leaderless and might not have been able to respond. However, this budget threw the Wildrose a huge lifeline and created a clear message for them going into the election.

Days after the budget, Danielle Smith lost her PC nomination bid in Highwood. Smith’s loss was a black eye for Prentice. Prentice had senior cabinet ministers campaigning for her. Some say that he didn’t do enough for her. She lost and the idea of bringing the two parties together was officially dead.

The same night as Smith lost her nomination bid, the Wildrose elected former Conservative MP Brian Jean as their new leader. The Wildrose Party ran a very quiet leadership race that garnered significantly less media attention than Smith’s bid to keep her seat in the Legislature. The party was still standing – in spite of being written off by just about everyone.

At the end of March, a stunning poll was released that showed that the Wildrose wasn’t just surviving but was actually tied for first place…within weeks of an election call! The lustre was officially off of the Prentice regime.

The Campaign

On April 7th, 2015, Jim Prentice visited the Lieutenant Governor and dropped the writ. The election was 11 months after he was elected leader of the Progressive Conservatives and one year before the PCs own legislated election period. The election was called for May 5th, 2015. His rationale for the election call was the need to seek a mandate for the budget that he had introduced.

Brian Jean had been elected leader of his party for less than two weeks when the writ was dropped. This fact could not have been lost on Prentice and it was not lost on Albertans. Prentice’s election call looked craven and unnecessary. He looked to be trying to wipe his opposition off the map again.

Prentice could have easily called an election right after his election as leader. He could have asked for a mandate to do the things he needed to do as his government was going to be markedly different from the one led by Redford. He didn’t. He could have easily waited to call an election in April of 2016 as per the election period law. He didn’t.

The PCs tied their campaign to two things: 1) Prentice and his apparent popularity; 2) the budget.

Prentice’s name was on all of the campaign literature, signs, and TV ads. Unfortunately for the PCs, he was not nearly as popular as the PCs might have hoped. He was grim – in fact, his speeches should have included a Prozac for each listener. He was an anchor on his own party’s success.

The budget was an unmitigated disaster. Politics 101 dictates that you don’t go into an election after a bad news budget. Who wants to vote for a party that promises to take hundreds or thousands of dollars from your pocket if they win? One would think a party that had won 12 straight provincial elections would have figured this out.

Early in the campaign, Prentice backtracked on one of the most contentious aspects of his budget – the cut to the charitable donation tax credit. He refused to budge on a corporate tax increase even though maverick PC MLA Thomas Lukaszuk indicated during the campaign that he’d like to see the PCs to consider it.

Polls done early in the campaign showed that the race was tightening into a three way horse race between the PCs, Wildrose, and NDP. The Wildrose was invigorated by the budget and the stability provided by Brian Jean’s leadership. The NDP was well-organized and was running a professional campaign led by the very capable Rachel Notley.

The Leader’s Debate was a true turning point for the campaign. Jim Prentice turned his back to both Brian Jean and David Swann and focused almost exclusively on NDP leader Rachel Notley. For a sitting Premier to zoom in on the fourth party leader was fascinating. Prentice basically told every Albertan that the PCs had internal polling data that indicated that the NDP was surging and he need to stop that from continuing. Notley was not phased whatsoever. She handled his charges with a smile and successfully counter-punched each time. Prentice made Notley look like a premier. Prentice looked at best like the leader of the opposition.  He made a crucial error when he misspoke during a discussion on corporate taxes and then condescendingly said “I know that math is difficult, Rachel.” He could not have possibly looked less like a man deserving to be Premier. Had Prentice ignored Notley and focused on his own message, the results of the election may have been quite different.

Notley who already had momentum on her side before the debate was an unstoppable force after the election. The PCs tried to paint the NDP as scary similarly to how they effectively painted the Wildrose as scary in 2012. This was a relatively feeble attempt for two reasons: 1) By the time Prentice started to go on the attack against the NDP, the PCs were behind the NDP and the Wildrose. At a glance, the Wildrose looked to be the party that had the best chance of stopping the NDP; 2) It seemed that many Wildrose voters were so frustrated with the PCs and their corruption and opportunism that they’d rather elect an NDP government than another PC government.Photo taken by Jeff MacIntosh

On May 5th, 2015, the Alberta NDP ended the PC dynasty in convincing fashion. The PCs were reduced to the third party in the Legislature and will be seeking a new leader who has a huge task on their hands to try to rebuild the party.

List of Prentice/PC Mistakes

  • Mishandling of Bill 202/Bill 10
  • Not following the Canadian Alliance/PC template to formally merge the PCs and Wildrose. Instead they tried to opportunistically destroy the Wildrose.
  • Blames Albertans for the fiscal mistakes
  • Edmonton Meadowlark, Edmonton Ellerslie, Chestermere Rockyview nomination scandals
  • The entire budget
  • The timing of the election call
  • Building the campaign around Prentice and the budget
  • Making Notley the star of the Leader’s Debate
  • “Math is difficult, Rachel”

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Life in Public

As a candidate or an elected official, your personal life becomes far less personal and far more public. Everything you do can become public information. This is a trade off that you have made for the opportunity to make the change that you want in your area.

Here are some tips on handling public life:

  • Don’t lose touch with family and friends

Any political figure lives a very busy life. It is more important than ever to be close to your friends and family. They know you better than anyone else and know you beyond the persona that the media presents. It is easy to “live in a bubble” in politics where you get so wrapped up in a campaign or in government that you become disconnected from what is really happening in the world. Your friends and family can help burst that bubble and bring you back to real life. Also when times get tough, they will be there for you when everyone else around you might scatter. Call them whenever you have a free moment.

  • Social media is not your friend

One mistake on social media can destroy a career. You may think you are clever but you probably aren’t. What might be funny to you could be offensive to everyone else. Use social media to share important events and speak to issues. To be safe, designate someone who you trust to handle your social media presence. Make it clear with them what your expectations are.

  • Designate one friend as your outlet

In the extremely stressful world of politics, you have to be “on” all of the time. You can be having a terrible day where everything is going wrong but you can’t let your staff, volunteers, or media know about how rough things are going. You should have one trusted person in your life with whom you can “vent”. They can give you advice or they simply listen to you. This person could be your significant other but I don’t recommend it. They are also dealing with public life by being in a relationship with you and they also feel the stress. You don’t want to stress them out any further.

  • Don’t “google” yourself

You might be tempted to read reviews of the awesome speech that you gave but the internet is full of miserable anonymous people who say terrible things about public figures. From a public figure’s weight to their clothing choices, there really is nothing off limits for these people to comment on. Unless you have a ridiculously thick skin, it is best not to read what they say.

  • Be nice to journalists

They are trying to do their job and usually want to make you look good. It can be a symbiotic relationship. If you have an antagonistic relationship with them, don’t expect flattering articles about you.

  • Watch your drinking

Public life is stressful and it can involve a lot of travel which can be rather lonely. If you find that you start drinking too much as means to coping with the stress or loneliness from public life, seek help.

  • Depression is very serious

Everyone goes through ups and downs in their life. If you start to feel as if you are stuck in the depths of despair and can’t find a way to get out of it, you might be afraid to do anything about it out of fear of looking weak or hurting your poll numbers. Depression can be fatal and should never be ignored. Please seek help by telling a trusted colleague.

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10 Things to Watch on the eve of Alberta’s 2015 Election

As a tumultuous campaign comes to a close, many people will make predictions about the results of election.

I am not one of those people.

Everything seems to be pointing to a major breakthrough for the Alberta NDP and a historic collapse of a PC dynasty, but until the final vote is counted, the power of determining who Alberta’s governing party will be is in the hands of Alberta’s voters.

Here are some things to watch:

Photo taken by Jeff MacIntosh

1) How motivated are each party’s supporters to vote?

The momentum is clearly with the New Democrats in this election. One would think that their voters are more likely to show up at the polls than supporters of a party that appears to be in a steep decline. The PCs have been weighed down by their budget, scandals, and the ineffectiveness of their leader and one might think this might depress their voters into complacency. However, the PCs (and more recently Wildrose) has run a scare campaign that has targeted the NDP. It is unlikely to sway many NDP supporters but I believe that never really was its purpose. The scare campaign is designed to motivate right wing voters to get out on election day. We will see how effective the campaign has been in tomorrow’s results.

2) The Get Out The Vote effort

The Alberta PCs are known for their “on the ground” team. You don’t win 12 straight elections without some sort of skill with pulling the vote out. For what they lack in success in the polls, they make up in organizational strength throughout the province. The NDP is strong in Edmonton and has been building strength in some constituencies in Calgary and Lethbridge but much of the province does not have a “machine” that will pull out the vote. As such, they will be relying on their voters to show up on their own. In 2011, the federal NDP was able to win dozens of ridings in Quebec where they had nobody on the ground because their voters were so motivated that they didn’t need any help to get out to the voting booth. They may need a repeat of that tomorrow.

3) Vote Splits

Alberta hasn’t seen a three way race in decades. Many regions of the province are neck, neck, and neck. This lower threshold for victory could elect MLAs from any of the three main parties.

4) The Incumbency Factor

Incumbency is usually a huge advantage for an elected official. Over the past few years, we’ve seen recently several governments get re-elected that few anticipated would pull off a victory. Redford’s PCs, Selinger’s NDP, McGuinty’s and Wynne’s Liberals, and Clark’s BC Liberals all have stolen victory from near certain defeat. In Alberta, incumbency may not have the desired effect though. The zeitgeist that seems to be pervasive seems to be a hunger for change. The Alberta PCs seem to be stained by scandals and fiscal mismanagement and Albertans seem to have finally gotten into the “Throw the Bums Out” mentality that usually happens after any government has been around for more than a couple of terms. The Alberta PCs have had 12 terms! This “Throw the Bums Out” mentality turns incumbency into a huge liability.

5) The “Liberal-less” constituencies

The Liberals have only fielded 56 candidates in 87 constituencies and their campaign has fizzled. In the 31 constituencies without a Liberal candidate, one would expect the Alberta NDP to benefit. Many of the 31 constituencies without a Liberal candidate are rural with a possible Wildrose/PC split. This lowered threshold of victory combined with the lack of a Liberal candidate and the NDP surge, could elect NDP MLAs in ridings outside of Edmonton, Calgary, and Lethbridge.

6) The Hockey Game

Much like the Alberta NDP, the plucky Calgary Flames have come out of nowhere to find success! In an unfortunate scheduling conflict, the Flames play a home playoff game on Tuesday at 7:30pm. This means that almost 20,000 Calgarians will be at (or in transit to) the Saddledome during prime voting hours. Hundreds of thousands of people will be glued to their TV in hope that their beloved Flames can find a way to get back in the series. This may impact the already low voter turnout that tends to plague Alberta.

7) Will the Alberta Liberals win any seats at all?

If anyone asked me a week or two ago, I would say that both David Swann’s and Laurie Blakeman’s seats are very safe Liberal seats. I no longer believe that to be true. The NDP has surged to such heights in Edmonton that the Orange Wave might take Blakeman out to sea. Swann is more safe in his seat but he has had to spend an awful lot of time in his own constituency for a party leader and that has hurt the Liberal campaign as a whole. The Liberals have a chance in both Calgary Buffalo and McCall but, without Kent Hehr and Darshan Kang, those seats will be up for grabs.

8) Will the Wildrose have a breakthrough in Calgary?

The PC decline has created three way races in Calgary. The NDP surge has put them within striking distance of almost every constituency in the city. They have done this by stripping votes from both the PCs and Liberals. This surge could also help the Wildrose as their threshold for victory in many constituencies has been lowered.

9) Can Greg Clark defeat Gordon Dirks in Calgary Elbow?

If you’ve read any posts that I’ve made about the provincial election, you’ll note that I don’t talk much about the Alberta Party. The reason for that is because for the Alberta Party, this campaign is not an 87 constituency campaign. It is a one constituency campaign. They need to win Elbow. They simply can’t afford to lose here. All of their resources have gone into this campaign and losing it could mean it is game over for them.

10) How many seats will the NDP win in Calgary?

It would prove to be a massive boon to the NDP’s long term success to establish a beachhead in Calgary. Calgary Fort and Varsity seem to be going orange this election. The NDP has a good chance of winning in Klein, Mountainview, Currie, and Buffalo as well.

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