CALGARY — After a lethally dull summer campaign punctuated by ever more scandal, the race to succeed Alison Redford as Alberta’s premier is starting to become more interesting as it closes in on its final two weeks.
Jim Prentice, one of three candidates to become Alberta’s next premier, had an interesting idea last week. But like so many interesting ideas, once revealed it came under immediate assault.
Prentice announced last week that one of his first actions as premier would be to introduce term limits for members of the provincial legislature. Members of the Legislative Assembly would be limited to three terms; premiers would be limited to two.
Prentice has been out of elected politics since 2010 and perhaps didn’t appreciate how dangerous it is to reveal an opinion before it has been road-tested to the point of exhaustion. Although there are good reasons to support term limits, the blowback has been so fast and furious that he is already adding caveats.
Gaffes, bizarre promises, and even a possible police investigation are finally beginning to draw some attention away from the poisoned legacy of the beleaguered former premier.
So far, former federal cabinet minister Jim Prentice appears to have maintained the lead in a race that seems crafted specifically to avoid both outright flubs and the public’s interest. But that strategy may have backfired; enthusiasm for the campaign appears to be so marginal that some pollsters have warned that one of the two other candidates may be able to swoop in for the prize.
“The numbers are going to be way down, and like in a general election, numbers that are way down makes prediction much more difficult,” said Bruce Cameron, president of Return on Insight, a local polling firm. “A campaign that’s able to target a specific interest group or ethnic or cultural group … can change the results.”
The premier is decided by party members alone, making the coming leadership race far more significant in some ways than a general election. The province has now been under Progressive Conservative rule for 43 years, making it the longest-running government in Canadian history. The premier, the party and the policies of the province have, thus, always been decided at the party level.
This system also makes the actual decision-makers almost impossible to poll, Mr. Cameron said.
Instead, he has conducted a study of social media conversations that, he believes, offer “a good indication of the tone of the race itself.”
“What we found is that the degree of interest dropped off dramatically in June and July — until more revelations about Alison Redford were released,” he said, referring to the scathing auditor general’s report, which confirmed Ms. Redford used public resources inappropriately. “At that point, interest peaked again, but it was negative.”
Recently the candidates, including Ric McIver and Thomas Lukaszuk, have managed to steer the conversation away from Ms. Redford.
However, Mr. Cameron said Mr. Prentice remains far-and-away the favourite, despite the fact that not all of the news coming out on his end has been positive.
Mr. Prentice received much criticism after he admitted he was giving away party memberships — normally they sell for $10 apiece.
Afterward, he also announced a bizarre plan to introduce legislation that would set term limits on MLAs. The announcement was heavily criticized as unconstitutional and Mr. Prentice has since stepped back, suggesting the same plan could be achieved through party policy rather than legislation.
In the meantime, Mr. Lukaszuk found himself under scrutiny when someone anonymously leaked his $20,000 overseas cell phone bill to the Edmonton Sun, couriered fraudulently under the name of a Calgary man.
Mr. Lukaszuk said the Calgary Police Service is investigating.
“Many people are working really hard [to make it look like] there is no leadership race, that this is some form of an acclamation. That’s what Albertans have been led to believe,” he said.
In fact, the cell phone chicanery may show that at least someone thinks Mr. Lukaszuk has a fighting chance.
“Well, I think we have a real three-way race right now. It didn’t start out that way, at least Albertans were led to believe it didn’t start out that way, but I think we are in the final 100 metres and it’s pretty head-to-head,” Mr. Lukaszuk added.
In the midst of this brewing drama, rumours are rampant that membership sales have been dismal — unsurprising considering the season and the scandal.
Pleading ignorance on the membership drive, Mr. McIver countered: “People take holidays during the summer. I don’t think that’s a big surprise. Like any campaign… the closer you get to decision day, the more heightened people’s attention is.”
Indeed, the first ballot is scheduled to be cast on Sept. 6.
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