Alberta’s changing tide

The barbarians are at the gate again — and this time the dynasty is having trouble with the drawbridge. As the Alberta election campaign enters its final full week, the Progressive Conservative dynasty — the country’s longest ever — is being entrusted to the increasingly shaky grip of leader Jim Prentice. Of course, we’ve been here before.

The barbarians are at the gate again — and this time the dynasty is having trouble with the drawbridge.

As the Alberta election campaign enters its final full week, the Progressive Conservative dynasty — the country’s longest ever — is being entrusted to the increasingly shaky grip of leader Jim Prentice.

Of course, we’ve been here before.

Three short years ago, the dynasty was about to unravel under Alison Redford before a late eruption of intolerance and bigotry sank Wildrose under Danielle Smith and kept the dynasty chugging along into years 42, 43, 44.

Both women are now political footnotes and Prentice, the suave, experienced, former Stephen Harper cabinet minister, came charging in to protect one-party rule and calm everything down.

Instead, he has done everything he can to lose.

Whether Prentice has lost the fire, whether a hiatus from politics has left him rusty, whether he believed this election was a walk in the park and is rattled — or whether plunging oil prices have finally signalled a fin de régime — he is in trouble.

He is running behind Brian Jean, the leader of Wildrose, a party that tried to euthanize itself but was lifted off its deathbed by supporters who refused to follow former leader Smith off the cliff in a historic defection.

Jean, a former Conservative MP, has been on the job four whole weeks.

And, most remarkably, Prentice is running behind the NDP — yes, the NDP in Alberta — under the smooth leadership of Rachel Notley.

Jean and Notley did not exactly take juggernauts into this campaign. Nothing indicated either was anywhere but the wilderness, certainly not on the cusp of history.

Jean had a caucus of five in the 87-seat legislature, only three of whom ran again. Notley had a caucus of four and a history of party futility in a province that dismissed any political pretender cloaked in orange.

Prentice has done all he could to make this a race.

Before he even went to the people, he told them to “look in the mirror” if they wanted to see who was responsible for the economic woes here.

Then, faced with a $7-billion hole blown in government revenues, he unveiled a budget that featured 59 separate tax and fee hikes in a province that believes it is its divine right to avoid taxes felt elsewhere in the country.

But Prentice left corporate taxes alone.

There was immediate blowback. Prentice went to the polls anyway — a year before he had to under fixed date legislation.

He has backtracked on the reduction of the tax credit for charitable donations. He came across sounding sexist when, taking a shot at Notley’s botched numbers in her economic platform, told her “I know that math is difficult.”

On Saturday, he lost his justice minister, who resigned because he is tied up in litigation with his estranged wife. For those who like metaphors, his campaign bus was rammed from behind by his security detail.

But the Alberta status quo has seven days to snap back.

Notley’s ascension could be her ultimate downfall if this province awakens to a realization that it could elect an NDP government or a minority with the NDP holding the balance of power.

“Alberta is not an NDP province,” Prentice declared on Saturday.

And so the PC guns are trained on the 51-year-old NDP leader, the daughter of a one-time iconic NDP leader who died young in a plane crash.

Over the weekend, it was her comment that she would not push the Northern Gateway pipeline that would transport Alberta bitumen across British Columbia to a port at Kitimat, B.C.

The PCs pounced, but Notley was surely stating the obvious. Even Harper Conservatives in Ottawa are silent about the diminished prospects of Northern Gateway.

Prentice, himself, has talked about the difficulty of overcoming aboriginal opposition and the problems with the Kitimat terminus, but Saturday he was (wrongly) accusing Notley of being against all pipelines. The NDP leader does support the Kinder Morgan pipeline in British Columbia and Energy East.

And who came riding to her defence?

That would be Smith, once the right-wing barbarian at the gate, now watching the man she embraced from the sidelines, chastened and bruised, reminding voters that Notley does champion other pipelines.

That may show us two things — the fear factor may have to be ramped up before the drawbridge can be closed and it is mighty difficult to tell the players without a program in a province where the status quo was once the only sure thing.

Tim Harper is a syndicated Toronto Star national affairs writer. He can be reached at tharper@thestar.ca.

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