When your predecessor lost her job by getting a lot of small things wrong in the most counterproductive way possible, it's easy to engineer a change in direction. That fleet of private government planes whose flights of fancy grounded Alison Redford? Announce you're selling them. The big cabinet that bugged voters? Cut its size. That partisan, paranoid plan to change the province's licence plates by removing the long-standing tag line "Wild Rose Country"? Ditch it. Jim Prentice did all of the above in his first days as Alberta's new Progressive Conservative Premier. Not bad.
And from here on in, it gets harder. The above are minor problems; a bungling government managed to inflate them into major issues. Want a real issue that will dominate Alberta's future, and Canada's? Consider how all of the province's booming oil production is going to get to market.
To advance that agenda, Mr. Prentice has taken two important steps. First, the new Premier also made himself Minister of Aboriginal Relations. And on Monday, in an interview with The Globe and Mail, he said some sensible things about the challenge of moving oil to the Pacific – an issue where public support beyond Alberta, particularly aboriginal support, is essential.
Instead of unconditionally backing the troubled Northern Gateway pipeline proposal, Mr. Prentice acknowledged that it has problems – due to "a lot of questions that First Nations people have been asking," which "have not been answered to their satisfaction." He was also honest about possible alternatives. The Premier says there are at least four. None is perfect, but some might be ecologically or politically better.
Some choices in life are binary – it's all or nothing; yes or it's a no. But governing is usually about a multiplicity of options on a spectrum. As we said on Monday in writing about Canada's muddled greenhouse gas strategy, the federal government has for years cultivated the idea that its critics want to completely shut down the oil sands – and its more extreme critics agree, claiming that to do anything about climate change, you have to shut down the oil sands. The truth isn't at either of those extremes. There are a range of options between the poles.
The same goes for pipelines policy. The Harper government has long been vocal about the need for pipelines to be built – and it is absolutely right. Where it got it wrong was when years ago it turned itself into the main public advocate for Northern Gateway, long before the proposal had cleared regulatory scrutiny.
Pipelines are necessary – but not every pipeline, under whatever conditions, is. The Alberta Premier is sounding a thoughtful tone. He's standing back and taking a step to the side, the better to take a step forward. This is going to be a long game, one lasting years. But it's a good first move.