Former prime minister Brian Mulroney has plenty of advice for leaders such as Alberta's premier-designate Jim Prentice, starting with this timeless pearl: Ignore the critics and do what your gut says is right.
Mr. Mulroney was in town Friday to give a speech on leadership in difficult times to a downtown business crowd. It is a subject pertinent to Mr. Prentice as he prepares to take the reins of a province extremely unhappy with the government and the iconic political brand associated with it.
Mr. Prentice is expected to be sworn in as the province's 16th premier on Monday, at which time it's anticipated he'll also introduce a new cabinet. Since winning the Progressive Conservative party leadership on Saturday, the former federal cabinet minister has emphasized his desire to press the restart button on a government held in great disdain because of two scandal-plagued years under disgraced former premier Alison Redford.
"You have to spend political capital to make things better," Mr. Mulroney told his audience. "Jim Prentice is going to start learning this next week."
Mr. Prentice has little political capital to expend at the moment. Still, it may not stop him from proceeding with a highly unconventional move that has received poor early reviews. The talk all week in Alberta is that the new Tory Leader is preparing to appoint an unelected person or two to his cabinet. It's conjecture he has refused to rule out. If anything, the speculation picked up steam on Friday when interim premier and long-time PC MLA Dave Hancock announced he is quitting politics immediately to pursue other ventures.
Mr. Hancock has represented the Tory-friendly riding of Edmonton-Whitemud for years. It's widely believed he is stepping aside to create a by-election for former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel. Mr. Mandel is on Mr. Prentice's transition team and is counted as a close friend of the new leader. It's almost a certainty now that Mr. Mandel will be named to cabinet, and it will be announced that he will run for office in Mr. Hancock's old riding.
The question is will he be the only non-elected person to take a seat around Mr. Prentice's cabinet table? How many external ministers could the party have without creating a mini-political crisis in the province? Moreover, given the heat Mr. Prentice will take over the move, both inside and outside of his caucus, is it even a gamble worth taking?
I believe it is. Mr. Mandel was mostly a popular mayor in Edmonton and is generally well thought of. Attracting him to the government will be seen as a coup, especially for those living in the city over which he once presided. Another person of his ilk around the cabinet table would not likely be frowned upon by anyone but unhappy backbench Tory MLAs and Opposition politicians making partisan hay. Any non-elected person in the new cabinet would have to be set to run in a by-election almost immediately, certainly within two or three months of being sworn in as a member of the executive council.
This is not unheard of in Canadian politics, of course, although it has mostly been confined to the national scene. It's evident that there will be many new faces around the cabinet table as Mr. Prentice jettisons those most closely associated with the turbulent Redford era. This will mean some tough conversations in the name of renewal.
Mr. Prentice has already announced a chief of staff and principal secretary. Both appointments were somewhat of a surprise. Chief of staff Mike Percy once represented the Liberals in the Alberta legislature. A former dean of the University of Alberta business school who has written widely on economics, Mr. Percy is a gold-plated recruit. Principal secretary Patricia Misutka, meantime, was Mr. Mandel's former chief of staff and also comes with a sterling reputation.
If this is an early illustration of Mr. Prentice's ability to attract high-quality candidates to his team, it bodes well for him. As a corporate lawyer who knows what a blue-chip boardroom looks like, Mr. Prentice is expected to instill new discipline in a cabinet and caucus that has been rife with dissension and acrimony. He is the chairman of the board now and will need to outline the new rules of conduct and the expectations that go with them going forward.
"People can smell leadership a mile away," Mr. Mulroney told the crowd. "They can smell the absence of it, too."