It wasn't long after Jim Prentice had been sworn in as the 16th Premier of Alberta last September that we sat down in a second-floor office at the McDougall Centre, the ornate former school in downtown Calgary that serves as the southern headquarters of the provincial government.
At the time, he was still very much viewed as the messiah who had arrived to rescue the tainted Progressive Conservative brand. We talked about the Tories' decades-long grip on power, the one that seemed imperilled by scandal and voter fatigue. Did attempting to ensure that the PC reign continued on into infinity create any additional burden, I wondered.
"I don't represent someone stepping in to save a dynasty," Mr. Prentice told me that afternoon. "I don't wake up every morning thinking about this 43 years in power business." There was something unconvincing about his response. How could he not feel the enormous weight of expectation that came with the job? It was impossible to ignore.
I was reminded of that conversation this week as I tried to imagine how the outgoing Premier was coping in the wake of last week's historic election result, which saw the NDP take hold of power and the Wildrose become Official Opposition. I was at PC headquarters the night Mr. Prentice announced his resignation as leader and as an MLA. The devastation of the defeat was written all over him; it was hard not to feel for the man. Many will forever blame him for creating the conditions that allowed an iconic political institution to finally be toppled.
If events in Alberta follow script, the New Democrats should be in power for some time and the Tories, well, they'll become extinct, just like the political entities before them that had their long runs in power ended: Alberta Liberals, United Farmers and Social Credit. Or can the PCs defy this standard narrative and rejuvenate themselves to rule another day?
There will soon be enormous pressure on Alberta's two centre-right parties to bond under one banner. The province's business elite are undoubtedly already talking about that eventuality. Once the NDP makes good on its promise to raise corporate income tax by two points, the pressure to unify will be ramped up even further. But join forces under whose flag?
Wildrose has the greater numbers in the legislature; the Tories have seniority. It's inconceivable Wildrose Leader Brian Jean and his caucus would ever agree to exist under the PC logo. Someone tried that last December and it backfired spectacularly. Conversely, it's hard to imagine the Tory caucus wanting to be the ones who shuttered their party. Wildrose will have little interest in having talks along these lines in the immediate future anyway; they'll be too busy learning how to be an effective opposition.
The other huge factor in this discussion is the performance of the NDP.
Generally, a majority of the size the New Democrats obtained is good for two terms. What makes their situation unusual is the number of votes the party received from people who are, ideologically speaking, likely more of a match for the Tories/Wildrose. This time around, however, they were so desperate to kick the Tory bums out, they voted for the party with the best chance of making that happen. So no one knows exactly how loyal that NDP vote is.
The immediate future of Alberta politics will largely be determined by how the NDP decides to govern. If the party charts a cautious, centrist path that is built on a somewhat business and energy friendly policy platform, then it will help deflate some of the paranoia that currently exists in the oil patch.
In that case, there may be more of an appetite to see how things play out with the Tories and Wildrose rather than forcing the unity issue. The PCs have to elect a new leader. It will be fascinating to see who steps up to go for the job; the quality of candidates will say a lot about the future of the party.
On that day Jim Prentice and I sat down together last September, he said one of the strengths of the Tories was their ability to continually reinvent themselves in a bid to appeal to voters. Never has that challenge been greater than it is now.