Engineering real change

When was the last time you heard a politician say something interesting during an internal party leadership campaign? If you’re not a keen follower of politics and policy, the most likely answer is: not ever.

When was the last time you heard a politician say something interesting during an internal party leadership campaign?

If you’re not a keen follower of politics and policy, the most likely answer is: not ever.

Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership candidate Jim Prentice said something interesting to a gathering of party members in Edmonton last week.

He said that if he became premier, he would bring in a bill imposing term limits on provincial politicians.

Current MLAs would be grandfathered, of course, but a new MLA would be allowed a maximum of three terms, and two terms for a premier.

He also spoke of the end of single-source contracts and a doubling of the “cooling off” period for ministerial staff and public service employees (to one full year, from the current six months) who leave office, before they could return to a government paycheque in some other form.

It’s strange that a candidate seeking to extend the world’s longest freely-elected parliamentary dynasty would talk about introducing Canada to the thought of term limits for elected officials.

But that’s not the only non-traditional thought he uttered that day.

Prentice is actually quoted as saying the government he intends to lead — which has been in office since 1971 with continuous landslide majorities — is “out of touch” with Albertans.

A quick observation: it is more than likely the government has indeed “lost touch” with the general populace. Given human nature and the nature of power elites throughout history, that’s inevitable.

But unless there’s been a seismic change recently, you could also suggest that Prentice is making a massive misreading of the Alberta psyche.

For all the talk about our so-called “independent, free-thinking Alberta spirit,” the reality is that Alberta voters have never wanted a new broom in government, or a rollover of new people with fresh ideas.

What Alberta has wanted from government, ever since Confederation, was to just hand the keys to a populist leader and to walk away. If we want a change, we’ll call you. And we almost never do.

The globe will experience major earthquakes, volcanoes and tsunamis. Entire countries fall apart and disappear, with new countries springing up in their place. Entire species go into extinction and the world’s climate can change.

But Albertans do not change governments.

And Jim Prentice wants to bring in term limits to institutionalize change? Just who is out of touch here?

Peter Lougheed led the Alberta Tories for 20 years. He was premier for 14 years and extremely popular the entire time.

Before he took power, Social Credit had ruled Alberta for 36 years, all but 11 years of that under Ernest Manning.

Between the Socred and the Tory eras, Alberta voters have decided only one change in government since 1935, for gosh sakes. Just one.

Even party insiders will agree the last full term of Ralph Klein’s 14-year tenure as premier was less than dynamic, but that’s still a far sight longer than the eight years he would have been allowed under the proposal by Jim Prentice.

And right to the end, Klein was always popular with Alberta voters.

The truth is, Albertans don’t like change.

Up to today, perhaps.

One Central Canadian columnist remarked a while back that whoever wins this leadership race, that person had better be able to walk on water (like Lougheed and Klein) or he will drown.

Perhaps Prentice is trying to change the water’s depth.

All the candidates wishing to be Alberta’s next premier are working hard to put new product into the Alberta Progressive Conservative package. Just enough change to satisfy Alberta’s small historical appetite for it.

But anyone looking for a new broom to sweep the dust out of the Alberta legislature will first need to convince voters that it’s worthwhile for them to keep one hand on the keys to the building.

I’m not sure Prentice can force that through legislated term limits.

This is a responsibility Alberta voters need to take on themselves. If they want it.

Greg Neiman is a retired Advocate editor. Follow his blog at or email