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Mount Royal University professor David Taras says $70 oil could force Alberta Premier Jim Prentice to ‘play with political fire’ and increase taxes, lest he dramatically scale back on his promises.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

David Taras talks to Gary Mason about the dramatic turnaround in the popularity of Alberta's governing Progressive Conservatives

The long reign of the Progressive Conservatives was widely considered to be imperilled as recently as this summer. Now the party seems to be riding high under new leadership. Is it now the Wildrose party that is in trouble?

With breathtaking speed, Jim Prentice has managed to make himself, rather than the Wildrose, the symbol of change. In a series of rapid-fire decisions in his first months as Premier, Prentice effectively buried the Redford legacy, took much of Wildrose's political ammunition off the table and rebranded the Conservative Party. He has placed right-wing conservatives in senior positions in the cabinet. The recent Speech from the Throne contains initiatives on property rights, repairing roads and bridges and on rural health care designed to woo rural Alberta, the Wildrose heartland, back to the Tories. And Prentice also makes a point of visiting rural Alberta, including remote ridings.

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Of all the things that the new Premier has done since taking over the Alberta Tories, what has been politically the smartest in your view?

Perhaps Prentice's shrewdest move was in choosing the terrain on which the recent by-elections were fought. In the weeks before the by-elections, Prentice had dominated the media agenda by making an announcement a day and had skillfully defused a number of political time bombs. The four by-elections were all held in urban ridings. Three of them were Conservative bastions, and the other one, Calgary Elbow, was particularly inhospitable to the Wildrose. With Prentice, and [Alberta] Health Minister Stephen Mandel, a popular three-term mayor of Edmonton, running, winning at least two seats was all but guaranteed.

What is the biggest threat to the new grip on power that the PCs now seem to have in Alberta?

The biggest threat to the Tories is the price of oil. Alberta is a far different province at $70 oil than is at $90 or $100 oil. With the prospect of major projects being shelved, substantial job losses and reduced revenues for the province, Prentice will either have to dramatically scale back his promises or play with the political fire of tax increases.

Is the turbulent, scandal-plagued tenure of Alison Redford a thing of the past or something that could still haunt Mr. Prentice and his party?

Prentice is aware that personal and government spending will be watched closely and that transparency and accountability are the new gold standards against which his performance will be judged. But some overhang from the Redford years will remain. This is particularly the case with health care, which now eats up close to 45 per cent of the provincial budget. Under Redford, the health care system seemed to careen out of control. Firings, bonuses and intrigues shredded the government's image as a competent manager.

What does it say about Alberta that the same party has been in office for 43 years and counting?

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Alberta is arguably the only remaining one-party state in the Western world. The Tories' longevity in office can be partially explained by the perceived need to forge a strong united front against what were seen as threats from Liberal governments in Ottawa (Google: National Energy program) as well as by the success of larger-than-life leaders such as Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein who came to symbolize not only the party, but the province itself.

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