Post-fight analysis: Round 1 to Jim Prentice as Wildrose comes out swinging over debt remark

Posted on May 24, 2014, 2:13 am
9 mins

Jim Prentice and Wildrose champion Rob Anderson square off in Round 1, as members of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce look on. Actual scenes from Alberta political discourse may not appear exactly as illustrated. Judge Dave gives Round 1 to Mr. Prentice. Below: The real Mr. Prentice and the real Mr. Anderson.

Well, it’s hard to know for sure, but I’d say the first open policy scrap between Jim Prentice, Progressive Conservative Premier Apparent of Alberta, and the Wildrose Opposition yesterday morning went to Mr. Prentice.

Leastways, by most accounts Mr. Prentice managed to sound like a grownup when he gave a policy speech over breakfast to the members of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, his first such event since making his long-expected candidacy official on Wednesday.

In response to a questioner, he stated clearly that if you’re going to run a Canadian provincial government, you may have to incur some debt in order to build the expensive stuff you need when your population grows, like hospitals, schools, roads and seniors’ facilities. The CBC made a recording of the Question and Answer session, so you can listen for yourself to what he had to say and how he said it.

“This isn’t about ideology, it is about people and the basic responsibilities of government,” said Mr. Prentice, in what seems to have become the symbolic sound bite of the affair. He also stated that Alberta has “an incredible infrastructure deficit” – although he was too savvy to put the blame for that fact where it belongs, on the shoulders of the now-sainted premier Ralph Klein.

Without naming names, he observed of the infrastructure hangover left by Mr. Klein’s period of misrule: “This has to be built. Let’s get on with it. That’s how all other democratic governments function and that’s how this one will.”

Remember that the lawyer, lobbyist, senior banker and former federal cabinet minister was speaking to a friendly and sympathetic crowd. Calgary is his home, and the community he represented for the Conservative Party of Canada. And the Calgary Chamber is a titch more liberal than Chambers of Commerce in most Canadian cities. The room was certainly packed with people in favour of the idea of public spending on big infrastructure projects, however it’s financed.

As for the Wildrose Opposition, it’s not a condemnation to say it reacted predictably. You can frame it positively: the Wildrose Party under Leader Danielle Smith has unequivocally staked out its position that each provincial budget should be balanced and there are few times a province as rich as Alberta should need to go into debt, maybe none.

The Wildrosers have certainly never made any bones about the fact that on most issues, though not every one, they are well to the to the right of the Tory governments of Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, Dave Hancock and – by the sound of it – the one that will likely be run by Mr. Prentice.

Or you can frame it negatively: the Wildrose Party has boxed itself by taking an inflexible position on debt and economic development, and Mr. Prentice tried to exploit that.

However you see it – and how you see it is likely to be tied to your own beliefs on this question – Wildrose spokespeople and their close friends in the media reacted instinctively, saying pretty much what you’d expect in response to Mr. Prentice’s statement he would be prepared to use debt to build infrastructure.

Never mind the other stuff that was talked about yesterday – entitlement, use of government airplanes, the province’s ridiculous flat tax and all the rest – because the Prentice and Wildrose positions are essentially identical.

Wildrose Finance Critic Rob Anderson did the honours on the response: “This is not change. This is the same gong show we’ve been putting up with for the past four years,” Mr. Anderson said, according to the reliably supportive Rick Bell of the Calgary Sun. “Now we have some banker from Bay Street coming here and telling us to borrow more money from banks. You can’t make this stuff up.”

“Nice fumble on your first carry, Jim,” Mr. Bell quoted Mr. Anderson as saying defiantly. “If Jim’s goal was to woo back conservatives he’ll regret this day. We’ll make sure of it.” The Calgary Herald quoted Mr. Anderson on the same question: “He made a severe strategic error today.”

Well, we’ll see.

Mr. Prentice certainly made an important strategic choice yesterday. Presumably he did it in a considered way, knowing that it would be heavily reported as his first major policy statement, and that it would clearly differentiate the PC Party under his likely leadership from the well-known Wildrose position. He undoubtedly has good polling data on what Albertans think about the issue as well.

So if Mr. Anderson is right and it was a serious strategic error, it was a calculated one.

The Herald also quoted Janet Brown, a leading Alberta pollster based in Calgary, who was also at the breakfast, saying her research indicates Alberta voters are about evenly split on whether using government debt to build big projects is a good idea or a bad one.

So think about this: If Ms. Brown is right and the population is evenly split, and Mr. Prentice knows the PC Party has already lost the portion of the population that strongly supports the Wildrose position, identifying his party clearly as the only potential government that wants to do what half the population supports is smart strategically, not a major blunder.

It’s said here that Mr. Prentice’s goal was most likely not to woo back conservatives but to start rebuilding the progressive coalition that saved the party in 2012 and which Ms. Redford foolishly blew away with her insane policy of waging war on her strongest supporters. That’s where the gong show came in!

I recognize that we all have a tendency, consciously or unconsciously, to assign the victory in an argument to the side we sympathize with more. I’m sure I’m as prone to this as anyone else, and I do think Mr. Prentice is right about debt, if not much else.

But I sure don’t see this go-round as a slam-dunk victory for the Wildrose just because they have said exactly what their supporters expected them to say. Indeed, they didn’t leave themselves very much room to say anything else.

So I say this round goes to Mr. Prentice. There are many more to come, and he’s fighting from a long way behind thanks to the incredible incompetence of Ms. Redford and her closest supporters.

Still, yesterday’s skirmish suggests that Mr. Prentice is not a bad choice to lead a party facing a desperate and well-deserved challenge.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.

8 Comments to: Post-fight analysis: Round 1 to Jim Prentice as Wildrose comes out swinging over debt remark

  1. Rod Feland

    May 24th, 2014

    Good observations David!

    Much as I detest the thought of another four years under the PCs, you can’t fault them for being politically astute. Afterall, that sort of flip-flopping has kept them in power this long.

    I would just like to see someone who does their job as a government instead of abdicating their responsibilities. A little long range planning and foresight would be a refreshing change to this constant bended knee to the corporate sector. How about representing the People and the Communities that elect you?

    Reply
  2. bert

    May 24th, 2014

    No debt, eh? I guess Mr. Anderson is fortunate enough to have paid cash for his house, as would most Wild Rosie supporters one would assume, as they would never borrow from the banks. Then again, if the Royalties were adjusted a small % we could pay cash to catch up on our underfunded infrastructure.

    Reply
  3. V. Jobson

    May 24th, 2014

    Shows how much the country has changed when a Calgarian can be called a “Bay Street banker.”

    Reply
  4. Jack C

    May 24th, 2014

    The PC’s only hope is to move to the right and start going after conservative voters. 73% of people voted for Harper in 2011 and the 27% is rather crowded between the NDP, Liberals, Greens, and even others. To the right is the only way.

    Reply
    • Liza

      May 24th, 2014

      So Jack C. you appear to be unfamiliar with our first-past-the-post voting system here in Canada. In 2011, Harper won 39.62% of the popular vote. Not 71%. Plenty of room on the left.
      And… Harper is federal, PCs provincial.
      All that said, the PCs are far enough right already I would think.

      Reply
  5. Jack C

    May 25th, 2014

    Liza, you appear to be unfamiliar with Alberta politics. In 2011, Harper won 73% of the votes in ALBERTA, taking all but one seat. That is what we’re talking about in this article, not the other 9 provinces. Point proven is that Alberta is a conservative province and trying to go after the little left wing vote here is futile, as it is split between at least 3 different parties.

    The strategy for the PC’s is to restore the solid right-wing base Ralph Klein had.

    Reply
    • Liza

      May 26th, 2014

      No kidding, Jack C, Alberta’s conservative?
      But more to the point, it’s not at all clear where your 73% is coming from. Here (http://www.sfu.ca/~aheard/elections/results.html) they say the federal Conservative share of the popular vote in Alberta was 66.8%, not to mention that this was with 55.8% voter turnout (4th from the bottom beating Newfoundland, the NWT, and Nunavut).
      So, if I was feeling argumentative , I might suggest that only 37.3% of the voting population is conservative enough to bother voting for the federal conservative party, leaving lots of opportunity on the left. Chris Turner, Elizabeth May, and the Greens used Alberta’s low voter turnout to argue that they weren’t splitting the left vote in the Calgary 2012 federal by election; they were seeing new voters. But I don’t think I entirely believe them. After all, the Conservatives did win in that case in the end.

      Reply
    • TheRage

      May 27th, 2014

      Federal elections have consistently produced more of a conservative vote than provincial elections–we’re talking about provincial politics here. Not to mention the fact that the federal conservatives have used deficit financing, putting them more in line with Prentice’s position (and Prentice was one the four biggest names in the federal PC party). As Dave states in his article, Alison Redford beat the wildrose while branding herself as a centralist. Not to mention the fact that the two cities that account for the vast majority of Alberta’s poplulation have progressives as mayors. Your position is ridiculous–you ignore the results of the last provincial election, the last municipal elections, and focus only on the federal election–one that was won by the CPC that ran defecits and had Prentice as a previous significant leader.

      Reply

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