Jim Prentice wore a broad smile after being declared winner of the Alberta Progressive Conservative leadership convention Saturday evening. But surely it masked concerns he must have about the state of the legendary political institution he is inheriting.
When the government falls out of favour with the public in Alberta, the provincial Tories generally take a hit too. The level of that anger was evident when the party disclosed that only 23,000 people cast ballots in the first-ever use of an electronic voting system to elect a leader.
That total is far less than the 59,000 members who cast first-ballot votes in the last leadership battle in 2011 and a mere shadow of the 97,000 who participated in the 2006 Tory leadership contest. Two years of near-endless scandals and controversies have, not surprisingly, turned many off of the Progressive Conservative brand in Alberta. Now Mr. Prentice will have 18 months to try and repair the massive damage that has been done to a party that recently established a record as the longest-serving government in the history of the country – 43 years and seven days as of Saturday.
His first job, however, will be trying to unify a divided and embittered caucus that has been rife with internal tensions for most of the past two years. In many respects, the mud-slinging and recriminations that highlighted the leadership campaign was representative of the type of dysfunction that has characterized caucus dealings in the last while.
Many of the government's most powerful members, such as finance minister Doug Horner, have been linked to controversies from the Alison Redford era. It is almost a certainty that Mr. Prentice will change many faces in cabinet, with many familiar names finding new seats in the government back-benches.
Anyone who has been tainted by the Redford-era scandals will likely be shunned under Prentice's leadership. This will lead many former ministers to consider retirement, which is part of the new leader's plan. Renewal will be a main theme of the first year of his premiership. There has been speculation that Mr. Prentice could even bring in a non-elected member or two to his cabinet – although that would likely just inflame tensions in a caucus that doesn't need more reasons to be unhappy.
Mr. Prentice will also have to shore up the party's dismal finances, which took a huge hit under Ms. Redford's leadership. The party is in debt and will need to raise between $4 and $5-million to fight the next election. That means the new leader will be a fixture at rubber-chicken fundraisers throughout the province over the next several months.
He will also have to worry about getting elected in a byelection, likely in Calgary, the city he represented in the House of Commons for six years. There could be several by-elections, in fact, which will provide Mr. Prentice an opportunity to bring some fresh blood into the caucus (assuming they are victorious) and potentially into his cabinet as well. He will likely be trying to persuade some big names to try politics as a member of his team. A few star candidates could help the new leader convince the public that perhaps it should give the Tories another chance under Mr. Prentice's direction.
Many believe it won't make a difference, that Albertans believe it is time for a change. But then, the Tories have been counted out before. What is certain, is that the new leader of Alberta's natural governing party has his work cut out for him.