Jim Prentice is Alberta’s first Wildrose premier and he will soon call a snap election to ensure he can push forward a Wildrose program of using temporarily low oil prices as justification to roll back public sector salaries, attack pensions, reintroduce health care premiums and lay off nurses and teachers.
This sharp and credible warning comes from someone who should be better known as a political blogger than he is, a shrewd analyst of Alberta politics named Brian Mason.
Mr. Mason, of course, is well known to Albertans as the former leader of the Alberta New Democrats, and he remains the NDP MLA for Edmonton-Highlands-Norwood. But from time to time – not nearly often enough, if you ask me – Mr. Mason also writes a smart and entertaining blog about Alberta politics, and the post he published yesterday deserves to be widely read.
Mr. Mason sets out to explain not only why former Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and the rest of the Mudville Nine – as her Alberta Black Sox squad has come to be known around here – abandoned their supposed principles to join Mr. Prentice’s government caucus, but why the sordid deed was done in such a hurry when on the face of it there was no particular need for speed.
Notwithstanding its leadership’s disappointment at the results of the four by-elections on Oct. 27 – all of which were won by Mr. Prentice’s putative Progressive Conservative Party – the Wildrose Party itself “remained in good shape,” Mr. Mason wrote.
“While it was polling lower than when Redford was Premier, its numbers remained respectable,” he said. “It had money in the bank, a large membership, and a good staff team at the caucus. Despite Prentice’s whirlwind De-Redfordization program, the situation was redeemable.”
Mr. Mason, kindly citing my earlier reference to the malign influence of Preston Manning in this affair, suggests that Ms. Smith might have thought her party was doing well enough to carry on too, but for the influence of the Godfather of the Canadian Right.
“I know Danielle Smith well enough to know that she reveres Manning, and sees him as the eminence grise of Canadian conservatives,” Mr. Mason wrote. “If Manning argued that the deal was for the greater good of the conservative movement, I’m sure it would counter many objections for Smith.”
Indeed, the National Post’s Jen Gerson has now written a detailed explanation of “how Preston Manning convinced Wildrose MLAs to join mass defection,” as the paper’s headline writer put it. Personally, I think Ms. Gerson’s sources fudged the timeline a little for their own benefit, but she is quite believable when she reports “Mr. Manning’s pep talk was the moment that turned the tide.”
But why the hurry? Mr. Mason explains: “The answer comes from Smith herself. As I’ve watched her round of media interviews defending her decision, my Pepto-Bismol at the ready, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. And she did indeed reveal the political basis for the betrayal of her own party. … In the era of $50 oil, says Smith, she is ‘bringing conservatives together to make sure the tough decisions get made.’ She adds that this includes ‘selling them to Albertans.’”
So there we are, as Mr. Mason says.
The hurry’s partly about the temporary nature of the decline in the price of oil – driven down by the actions of the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, which itself is going to suffer pain if the tactic is carried on too long. So if “shock doctrine” marketization propaganda is going to be applied effectively in Alberta by Mr. Prentice, it’s going to need to be done sooner than later because the winning conditions won’t last long.
The Wildrose forces were also needed in the PC caucus, Mr. Mason argues, to shift the balance of power the right way and ensure genuinely progressive Conservative MLAs can’t rebel again, as they did against Alison Redford when she turned sharply right after campaigning to the left.
Mr. Prentice, who is also in the process of turning sharply right after campaigning to the left, certainly wouldn’t want to find himself in the same pickle. It “prepares the political ground for a brutal restructuring of public services in Alberta,” Mr. Mason wrote. “Jim Prentice it turns out, is Alberta’s first Wildrose Premier.”
Ironically, it was the existence of an effective Wildrose opposition, even though it was on the right, that gave leverage within caucus to the opponents of Ms. Redford’s attacks on public services. Some of them may have been motivated by mildly progressive sentiments as Mr. Mason suggests. More, I suspect, were just worried about losing to Wildrose opponents.
It’s highly evocative that all through the last days of Ms. Redford’s premiership, the Wildrose Party strove to persuade Albertans it was really very moderate and firmly in the centre. When Mr. Prentice was campaigning for the PC leadership, he tried hard to portray the same image. Now that they’re together again, they are singing a very different tune.
So the absence of an opposition party that could actually win saves both Mr. Prentice and his former opposition on the right from the need to show too much moderation in an election campaign that they both want to be followed by unneeded austerity.
Mr. Mason’s final conclusion, that there will soon be a snap election, is almost certainly right.
So here’s my prediction: Not only is he right, but Premier Prentice will call the general election next month, in late January 2015. We Albertans will go to the polls in February. Low oil prices will provide the cover.
Mr. Prentice will try very hard to ensure the campaign is about anything except what Mr. Mason says it ought to be: the need for the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share of the cost of running this province, not to mention “cynical conservative back room deals and the tired ‘sky is falling’ chorus from Tory premiers going back to Don Getty and Ralph Klein.”
In other words, nothing has changed.