EDMONTON — After one of the most tumultuous and bizarre years in the history of the Alberta legislature, there is talk that 2015 will see an encore with a surprise early election call.
Premier Jim Prentice wouldn’t tip his hand in a year-end interview, but he refused to rule out going to the polls a year earlier than legislation mandates.
“I think all options are on the table, as they always are,” said Prentice.
“You know me, I don’t close doors.”
Opponents say they’ll be ready and they say the government elected under former Conservative premier Alison Redford in 2012 doesn’t remotely resemble the one now led by Prentice.
“Albertans deserve the progressive government they voted for,” said NDP Leader Rachel Notley.
“(The Conservatives) clearly ran by presenting themselves to Albertans as the kind of party that Albertans were looking for.
“They were looking for a progressive, urban, modern, forward-looking party that believed in important issues, like for instance eliminating child poverty, like full day kindergarten, like funding our post-secondary education system properly.”
In the past three years, Albertans have seen little or none of the above. There have also been broken promises to build more schools and to avoid running up billions of dollars in debt. Redford was forced to quit the top job in March, but she stayed on for a few months longer as a member of the legislature for Calgary. Prentice decisively won a leadership vote and was installed as premier in September.
Redford was one of Canada’s top newsmakers in 2014 — for all the wrong reasons.
She quit politics altogether in August after Auditor General Merwan Saher determined she had misused government aircraft for personal trips and to ferry around her daughter and her daughter’s pals.
Saher also found that flight manifests had been doctored to allow Redford to fly solo, a matter that has been referred to the police as possible grounds for criminal fraud. Redford told Saher she had no knowledge of such document tampering.
There was more, including revelations of lavish spending on foreign trips and big ticket salaries and severance payouts for members of her inner circle. Her office had also been secretly directing renovations to the top of a government building to create swank penthouse living quarters for the premier that were modelled after a ritzy hotel in Washington D.C.
Redford left the party demoralized and in tatters, with the Opposition Wildrose party resurgent in the polls and flush with donations.
Seven months later, the Wildrose doubled down on Redford’s stained legacy, hoping to use it to hurt the Conservatives in four provincial byelections in October.
Send the PCs a Message, the Wildrose urged voters on campaign signs. Instead, voters elected Conservatives in all four ridings, including Prentice himself. The result gutted Smith’s confidence, and that of her 16 party colleagues in the legislature, and caused her caucus to collapse in an avalanche of defections.
Within a month of the vote, Wildrosers Kerry Towle and Ian Donovan had defected to join Prentice, saying he had the best plan to lead Alberta.
Smith roundly denounced the crossings but, in a stunning move a few weeks later, she herself led eight more Wildrose members to the government benches. She said she, too, now believed in Prentice and wanted to help.
The defections have been viewed by some not as a reunification of right-minded conservatives, but as a sellout in search of power perks and cabinet posts.
Prentice said he would mull over a cabinet shuffle during the year-end holidays.
Opponents say Prentice has effectively become a Wildrose premier under a PC banner. He insists he’s focusing on progressive issues, but he has yet to take concrete action on a new environment policy or on improving social programs. A compromise bill on establishing gay-straight alliances in schools was put on hold in December after critics said it would lead to segregation of gay youth. Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi said the bill made Albertans look like “hillbillies.”
If he calls — and wins — an early election this year, Prentice would have a mandate to follow through on promised fundamental changes to get Alberta’s day-to-day spending off the mercurial swings of oil prices, which peaked at more than US$100 a barrel earlier this year but are now languishing at a little over US$50 a barrel.
Prentice has hinted at tax changes, but hasn’t been specific, although he has promised to maintain Alberta’s status as the only province with no provincial sales tax.
There are no other guarantees.
“I’m focused on the immediate circumstances that we’re facing,” said Prentice.
“We’re trying to wrestle to the ground one of the most precipitous drops in energy revenue that the province has ever seen.”