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.
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.
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”