Even in her absence from Alberta's provincial scene, Alison Redford continues to haunt her party. For political opponents of the Progressive Conservatives, the former premier has become the gift that keeps on giving.
Despite resigning the premiership in March and having been seen little of as a backbench MLA, Ms. Redford continues to provide regular fodder for the province's news media. Recent freedom-of-information disclosures have revealed that the pattern of spending abuse that ultimately led to the former premier's downfall was even more widespread than imagined: Tens of thousands of dollars spent by Ms. Redford and her staff on travel-related matters of dubious value.
This, of course, has led some to suggest that Ms. Redford's political epitaph will inevitably include reference to the role she played in ending the Tories' four-decades-plus dynasty in the province. Many consider it a virtual certainty that the scandal-prone party will finally be given the boot by voters in 2016, in a long-overdue realignment of the Alberta political landscape.
It looks like it will be Jim Prentice's lonely task to try and ensure that doesn't happen. The former federal cabinet minister seems to have a more than comfortable lead in the lacklustre leadership race to find Ms. Redford's successor. It's widely held that Mr. Prentice is the party's best hope of convincing voters to ignore other political options and vote for the province's natural governing institution once again.
Don't bet against him.
I say this not because Mr. Prentice oozes charm and charisma; he doesn't. But he certainly is likeable enough, as Barack Obama once said of Hillary Clinton. And the oil patch is comfortable with him, which could not always be said about Ms. Redford. This matters because those in the oil and gas towers of downtown Calgary have developed a deeper affinity, a greater trust, of the Wildrose Party under the leadership of Danielle Smith.
That kind of love can translate into hundreds of thousands of fundraising dollars.
Not surprisingly, the latest polls show that if a provincial election were held today – regardless of who was steering the Tories – the Wildrose would win. But the numbers also suggest it could be a minority. The Leger poll for the Calgary Herald indicated that one in four Albertans polled were undecided.
If I were the Wildrose Party, that little snapshot would leave me a bit depressed. Given everything that's happened to the Conservatives, you would think their main political rivals would have a commanding lead in any voter survey taken. If not now, then when? For Wildrose, it's unlikely to get any better than this.
Meantime, the province's finances are starting to improve – rather dramatically. The Conservatives just announced a $775-million surplus for 2013-14. The famous "bitumen bubble" appears to have burst. That was Ms. Redford's term for the deepening discount Alberta oil was suffering south of the border – her government was predicting it would result in a $6-billion shortfall in energy revenue this past fiscal year.
That would now appear to have been either a gross miscalculation or a deliberate feint. Governments haven't been beyond offering up a dire economic forecast in the short term in order to make themselves look like heroes later on. But I doubt Albertans ultimately worry too much about this type of egregious rounding error. They care that the good times appear to be back and that provincial coffers are overflowing again. (That is, if you ignore the money the province is borrowing to pay for capital projects.)
All of this is to say that predictions of the PCs' final demise have likely been hasty. Could they still lose their first election since the early 1970s? Of course. But they could also win. The electorate doesn't like to mess around when an economy is hot and it seems to have a good thing going.
Meantime, if Mr. Prentice prevails in the Tory leadership contest and he wants a pep talk regarding his chances of reversing his party's fortunes, he might be advised to pick up the phone and dial B.C. Premier Christy Clark. She knows all about being counted out by the pollsters and pundits.