Why Prentice is in a rush

How can the average Albertan not be cynical about the provincial election that has been dropped into our laps? It is as contrived as any election called in the almost 44 years of uninterrupted Progressive Conservative control of this province. On Tuesday, Premier Jim Prentice announced (after weeks of speculation) that Albertans would go to the polls on May 5. “I am asking Albertans for a mandate to implement the changes that this province needs so badly,” he said.

How can the average Albertan not be cynical about the provincial election that has been dropped into our laps?

It is as contrived as any election called in the almost 44 years of uninterrupted Progressive Conservative control of this province.

On Tuesday, Premier Jim Prentice announced (after weeks of speculation) that Albertans would go to the polls on May 5.

“I am asking Albertans for a mandate to implement the changes that this province needs so badly,” he said.

Why an election is necessary to drive that change, a full year before one is required, will no doubt be debated vigorously by Albertans over the course of the next four weeks.

What’s the rush?

For Prentice, it’s mostly about getting in front of voters before difficult times deteriorate our fortunes further. There is no crystal ball that shows the oil industry regaining its stride any time soon. Even the most bullish of economic analysts now say that Alberta’s economic near-term is bleak, and our current performance is the worst in at least six years.

Going to the polls a year from now — a year after absorbing heavier taxes and continued slow economic growth — might put Albertans in an even surlier mood.

And asking for a mandate next spring would give the opposition parties time to get their houses in order.

Neither circumstance would suit the Tories.

Of course, an election now is also about gaining some space to do the dirty work: a new four-year mandate with a forceful majority and some fresh faces in caucus will give Prentice the time and resources to do what he wants.

But what that change will look like is anyone’s guess.

Certainly the Conservative election campaign will offer great platitudes about rebuilding our province: the new, sustainable Alberta awaits on the horizon.

But in reality, it is more likely that the platform of the Tories will focus as much as possible on the fringes of a new Alberta. The heart of the matter, if it has been defined by Prentice’s inner cadre at all, will never come up for discussion. That kind of discussion is too detailed — and potentially too damaging — for politicians in power to ever air during an election.

When was the last time an election in Alberta was fought by a Progressive Conservative government that was willing to talk details? We need to go all the way back to Peter Lougheed for substance on the campaign trail.

Nothing Prentice has done in the seven months since he won the party’s leadership suggests he is prepared for big change, or even willing to float balloons that would carry the ideas for big change.

So the 28-day campaign is being driven by a fabricated sense of urgency. It is being driven by politics, not leadership; it is being driven by hubris, not need.

We have seen little clarity from this new premier since he took over the party last September and won a seat in the legislature in late October.

He has offered us a budget that penalizes middle-income Albertans and he has trotted around the province trumpeting school projects that were previously announced and seniors housing that is long overdue.

But he knows he is in the driver’s seat, since Albertans have scant alternatives before them.

The election call comes with the opposition parties mostly in disarray — only the New Democrats seem prepared to challenge the Conservatives in every one of Alberta’s 87 ridings.

The Wildrose Party, decimated by defections to the Tories and with an untested leader, has 47 candidates in place.

The Alberta Party has 29 candidates. And the Liberals, with an interim leader, have 26.

Some opposition candidates will carry two or more party banners, in an attempt to pose a unified challenge to Conservative candidates.

The nominations close in nine days, so there is little time to round out the opposition rosters.

That this election will be costly can’t be denied. The last election, in April 2012, cost Albertans $13.6 million, although that trip to the polls included a vote for potential senators; the one previous, in 2008, cost $9.9 million.

The Tories spent $4.68 million to fight the 2012 election and seem prepared to ramp up the spending again this spring; their assets, not including individual constituencies’ holdings, total about $1 million. The opposition parties have significantly less, from $123,000 in assets for the Wildrose to $125,000 in debt for the NDP.

Prentice has a 72-seat majority in the 87-seat house, a much larger majority than he inherited from Alison Redford, thanks to the Wildrose avalanche.

What he doesn’t have is a sense of job security, apparently. So Albertans are being asked to put their cynicism aside and go to the polls, even if the deck is stacked.

John Stewart is the Advocate’s managing editor.

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