Be careful what you ask for! Jim Prentice walks away with the Wildrose political play book

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Premier Jim Prentice. Below: Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith and former party strategist Tom Flanagan, this time on the button.

As the expression goes: be careful what you ask for! You might just get it.

There is irony – perhaps even bitter irony – in what newly minted Alberta Premier Jim Prentice managed to do to the Wildrose Opposition last week and will likely continue to do to them this week as well.

As he attempts to right the leaky Progressive Conservative ship of state, which nearly sank during the inept captaincy of fired premier Alison Redford, he has not only emphatically abandoned a whole gamut of policies once implemented by the Redford Government, he has done what the federal Liberals have done repeatedly to the New Democratic Party.

To wit: in a spectacular act of political plagiarism, he seems to be adopting the entire Wildrose policy book, not to mention those of the NDP and the Alberta Liberals – returning to consolidated budgeting, selling off the government’s fleet of aircraft, keeping the Michener Centre open, and so on.

Yet there is little Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and her MLAs can do but pray someone is paying attention as they stand helplessly by and protest, “Hey! That was our idea!”

If the federal Liberal model holds, the Wildrose Party’s strategists have to understand that voters who are fooled by this brazen sleight of hand will never get it until after the election, when they will complain bitterly that they’ve been had if the government fails to follow through. The next time it comes along, however, they can be counted upon to take the bait again.

That’s got to be a sobering prospect to Wildrose strategists who once thought they had the perfect foil in premier Ed Stelmach, and then realized they had an even better one in Ms. Redford. Mr. Prentice does not seem to be so co-operative.

Indeed, since the Wildrose Party is helped by some very smart strategists with close ties to the federal Conservative Party, they are sure to understand that, despite their recent promising poll numbers, their grasp on certain victory began to loosen the moment Ms. Redford was forced to resign.

It’s all very well to say, as they undoubtedly tell themselves, that copying the Wildrose policy book at the start of the campaign kills the PCs’ best election talking point: that the Prentice Tories are somehow different from their principal opposition. But it has to frighten them that this technique has never bothered anyone, except the hapless New Democrats who were its most usual victims, when perpetrated by Liberals.

What author Dave Cournoyer calls the “de-Redfordization” process begun by Mr. Prentice has indeed resulted in a dramatic and remarkable turnaround in only a week. I frankly didn’t believe Mr. Prentice when he said, back on Sept. 9, that “after two weeks with me as the premier, there will be no doubts in anyone’s minds that this a time of renewal and a time of change. Put your seat belts on.” Well, he’s proved me wrong, at least as far as the change part goes, and in only one week!

He may by now have pretty much run out of Redford policies to reverse – except for the anti-union bills 45 and 46, one of which has never been enacted and the other of which has been rendered moot by the contract reached in collective bargaining with the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

But this week he will start to make promises that that Ms. Redford made and broke – with a considerably greater degree of credibility than the former premier given his performance in his first week. The rumour mill suggests he will start today by announcing plans to build numerous new schools.

Here too Mr. Prentice may steal from the Opposition play book, and the Opposition will have no effective comeback but to state the obvious and be ignored. Because, alas for them as for generations of federal New Democrats, there is no enforceable copyright on political and policy ideas.

Then, before we know it, we will be into a new session and Mr. Prentice will have the opportunity to introduce some new legislation – perhaps again stealing from the opposition parties with a comprehensive travel policy for MLAs and ministers, limits on severance for senior staff and strict per diems instead of unlimited expenses. Maybe he’ll even toss something symbolic to the LGTBQ community.

So where does that leave the government and its opposition? Well, I would say the analysis Saturday by former Wildrose chief strategist Tom Flanagan – who has now been thoroughly rehabilitated by the conservative media that spurned him last year – is close to flawless.

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Dr. Flanagan accurately described the Tories wobbly coalition and how it works – and how the loss of most conservative voters in Alberta doesn’t necessarily mean it will collapse if centre-left voters can be persuaded to back them one more time.

Dr. Flanagan is largely right too about the inherent contradiction in the whole rickety structure – that it can only deliver both balanced budgets and new spending if the notoriously fickle energy sector fluctuates in the right direction.

But there’s every reason to believe that’s exactly what’s going to happen. With winter approaching in Europe and the Wildrosers’ federal cousins doing what they can to exacerbate the sense of crisis on that continent, and with ISIS-ISIL-IS waging a vicious and frightening post-nation-state war across great swaths of the Middle East, the auguries suggest energy prices are unlikely to fall in the winter of 2014 or the spring of 2015.

If that is so, the conditions for yet another Tory win may be in place, and Albertans will find themselves living with Peter Lougheed’s political legacy for nigh on half a century!

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Categories Alberta Politics