Jim Prentice, who became Alberta’s premier-designate by virtue of a first-ballot Conservative leadership victory last weekend, has more history with Prime Minister Stephen Harper than any of his past and present provincial colleagues.
A front-line cabinet player in Harper’s two minority governments, the incoming premier has an insider’s perspective on what makes the prime minister tick.
Precious few people in positions of power and influence in Canada can boast as much.
But whether that will make for an easygoing relationship between the two governments is questionable.
Prentice takes the reins at a time when the Alberta’s energy agenda is stalled. Many oilpatch players have come around to the notion that it will not be advanced without a recast on climate change and a thaw in the usually frosty relationship between the government-backed industry and First Nations.
As a former federal aboriginal affairs and environment minister, Prentice has the credentials to effect part of that recast. But he can’t do it alone, in the face of a federal determination to stay the dubious course set over the past decade.
Brian Mulroney more than hinted as much in various interviews last week. And while he was speaking as a former prime minister, his conclusions were also informed by his more recent experience as a global business player.
Better than anyone outside of Harper’s circle, Prentice has a take on the limits of the change in tone he can hope for on the current federal watch.
From the outside, it is far from clear that Alberta’s economic interests — inasmuch as they rest on unclipping the export wings of its energy sector — would be best served by the re-election of a Harper-led government next year.
And then there is more to Prentice’s new role than leading a province that no federal leader can afford to ignore.
Prentice, in another life, ran to succeed Joe Clark as Progressive Conservative party leader.
He is now the highest-ranking red Tory in office in the country.
As provincial party leader, Prentice needs to stay on the good side of his former political boss, because job one for the Alberta Tories involves repairing the battered reputation of their mid-mandate government.
Over the last few years, Christie Clark in British Columbia, Kathleen Wynne in Ontario and Philippe Couillard in Quebec have all demonstrated that a fresh face can work wonders on a tired brand.
But what is different in Prentice’s predicament is that the biggest threat to the survival of the provincial dynasty he has inherited and the unity of his government comes not from across the political aisle but from within the larger Conservative tent.
In the battle against the Wildrose Party, Prentice can expect little more from Harper than neutrality.
Even if the prime minister were so inclined, he would be unlikely to manage to impose his will on his Alberta caucus.
That being said, it is equally in Harper’s interest to stay in Prentice’s good books. Harper can’t win a fourth mandate and a second governing majority next year without winning back the middle-of-the-road voters he has lost since the last election.
He can’t afford to have the red Tories sit on their hands across the country as he fights for re-election next year or to further alienate them between now and then.
Ralph Klein was Alberta’s last transformative premier. But one has to go back further, to Peter Lougheed and the beginning of the province’s Tory dynasty, to find a premier with as outward-looking a perspective as Prentice’s.
Klein inspired Ontario’s Conservative “Common Sense Revolution” and he led the country by example on the deficit-fighting front, but the national scene was never his forte.
Even Lucien Bouchard — a sovereigntist premier — was a happier camper at First Ministers gatherings than Klein.
Like Bouchard (and Jean Charest), Prentice’s political outlook was shaped in the big-picture environment of Parliament Hill.
At the provincial table he will be joining a set of newly elected Ontario and Quebec premiers eager to play an activist role on the national scene.
Chantal Hébert is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer.