Alberta Premier Jim Prentice decides to depart from his script to tell one of his favourite campaign stories. These digressions can often be the most entertaining part of a speech by the Progressive Conservative Leader, and in the final stretch of a political campaign that appears to be slipping from his grasp he can use all the help he can get.
"It was a 2004 federal election," he begins. "I'm out door-knocking and I'm at a trailer park. I pound on the door and there's no answer. I'm about to leave and I hear this scratching in the garden around the corner and I see this guy down on all fours."
The candidate tells the man he is running for office. "He looks over his shoulder and gives me the dirtiest look," Mr. Prentice recalls. "And then he says: 'Listen, pal, there's only one guy who's going to be my representative and that's Jim Prentice, so why don't you just get out of here.'"
The anecdote gets a polite, but mostly muted response. It's as if the 1,600 party supporters, who have paid $500 a plate to attend the fund-raising dinner in the dying days of a potentially myth-shattering provincial election, are thinking the same thing: This isn't 2004 any more. And it is certainly not lost on anyone that the Premier is giving the speech in a town that could soon be painted wall-to-wall NDP orange.
With just three days left until election day, Alberta would appear to be on the precipice of staggering political change that will be felt across the country. From virtually the outset of the campaign, polls have suggested there is a tremendous appetite for renewal in a province that has been ruled by the Progressive Conservative Party for nearly 44 years. Although a break from the Tory tradition was inevitable, few imagined the centre-left New Democrats would be the beneficiaries of voter antipathy toward an aging and controversy-beset political regime. But that is who many pollsters believe will form the next Alberta government.
Of course, one is always advised to regard any political polling with skepticism given the dodgy track record of such forecasts in recent elections. And some believe you can read the polls and still see a path to a Tory victory, depending on voter turnout and the success that the PC's desperate, socialist-hordes-are-at-the-gates ad blitz has in wooing votes away from Wildrose. There seems to be common agreement that Calgary will be the key battleground. We could see the first minority government in the province's history.
To outsiders, an Alberta governed by anything but a party with a strong conservative bent seems inconceivable. But for anyone paying attention, it's clear Alberta has been undergoing a demographic change for some time. The population has increasingly aggregated in expanding Edmonton and Calgary, both now governed by mayors with a progressive-minded focus.
This is not Ralph Klein's Alberta. In fact, the daughter of the former Conservative premier recently posted a video urging the public to vote NDP.
Over the Tories' time in power, periodic tremors have threatened the existence of this dynastic institution. The party's first premier, Peter Lougheed, was loved and revered. Elections under his reign from 1971-85 were massive coronations that left little room in the legislature for any non-PC politician. He eventually turned the government over to his friend, Don Getty, who could never fill his predecessor's giant shoes and allowed Opposition parties to establish a substantial footing.
Mr. Getty was succeeded by Mr. Klein, a gregarious populist whose shortcomings (including a prodigious appetite for alcohol) were often overlooked by voters who saw him as one of them. He beat off a serious challenge from the Liberals in 1993 – an odds-defying win known as the Miracle on the Prairies.
In 2012, it looked as if the PCs were going down to defeat to the Wildrose party. But in the dying days of the campaign, concerns about the extremist nature of some elements of the right-wing party appeared to scare voters back to the devil they knew, and Alison Redford's Tories were returned with a massive majority.
After Ms. Redford stepped down amid scandal in March, 2014, the job of perpetuating the PC dynasty was passed to Mr. Prentice. His administration was weighed down by the tainted political baggage of his predecessor. And he soon had to deal with the crash in the price of oil that blasted a massive hole in provincial revenue and forced him to table a budget in March that gave his opponents lots to shoot at.
On a trip aboard his campaign bus this week from Calgary to Edmonton, Mr. Prentice was his inscrutable self. Nothing about him suggested he was angry or anxious about possibly being known as the skipper who had his hands on the tiller when the good ship Progressive Conservative hit a rocky shoal and sank. He played with his daughter's dog Julio, a delightful five-pound Chiweenie – a cross between a Chihuahua and a Dachshund. It has Yoda-like ears over which the Premier and his wife Karen could not stop marvelling.
As the campaign hits its final hours, Mr. Prentice refuses to betray any frustration with the way the battle has gone. If it hasn't been an all-out disaster for his party, it's been close. A competent performance by Mr. Prentice in the only televised leaders' debate was overshadowed by his sexist-tinged scold to NDP Leader Rachel Notley: "I know math is tough." Since then there has been one bad-news day after another for the Tories, mostly stemming from controversies that broadly suggest the party has reached its best-before date.
"I've been trying to get people to focus on the issues but it's been hard," Mr. Prentice admits.
It has. During the trip to Edmonton, the Prentice campaign stopped by AM 630, where morning host Ryan Jespersen expertly grilled the Premier for half an hour about one peccadillo after another. It was definitely not the kind of exposure you're hoping for in the waning moments of a campaign in which you're lagging.
Concerns that the Premier has expressed on the campaign trail about Wildrose's budget numbers ("they simply don't add up. They won't say where they'll make their cuts") and the billions in promises the NDP has made ("how will they pay for them? They won't say") don't seem to be making an impact. An opinion survey, commissioned by the Calgary Herald and Edmonton Journal and conducted by Leger, identified trust and accountability as the most important issue on the minds of voters, not the economy.
If that's the case, it explains a lot about the polling numbers. There is no doubt the Alberta public has sincere trust issues with the government. Add anger about the recent budget and you have the recipe for a cataclysmic political event. Much of the discontent stems from the government's decision to raise taxes on everyone but corporations, leading critics to contend he's making up for the revenue shortfall on the backs of working people.
Ms. Notley has dined out on that discrepancy. And now she may have convinced enough Albertans that it's time to finally teach the Tories a lesson. Only a stint in the political penalty box will convince the party to clean house and change its ways. Not surprisingly, there has been a receptive and growing audience to that pitch on the hustings.
At his leaders' dinner Thursday night, Mr. Prentice warned against the dangers that loom should the New Democrats gain power. He conjured the image of federal NDP Leader Thomas Mulclair helping craft provincial policy. He talked about how Rachel Notley would raise taxes on business by 20 per cent. "My friends," he said, "this is the same NDP that made our grandparents so hesitant."
Except that generation is now mostly gone. A new one has taken hold, and it may be on the verge of making a dramatic statement of its own.
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