THE Progressive Conservatives have governed the energy-rich western province of Alberta since 1971, back when Richard Nixon was still in the White House. They have maintained their hold on power by being a “big tent” party with room for a broad range of views and by ditching their leader whenever popular support sags.
The latest to be ousted was Alison Redford, who was forced by her caucus to step down as premier in March and left politics altogether in August following reports that her staff had booked false passengers on government planes so that Ms Redford and her entourage could travel alone. On September 6th party members selected Jim Prentice, a former federal cabinet minister and latterly a vice-chairman of one of Canada’s big banks, to be their next leader and the next premier of Alberta.
Mr Prentice is taking over at a difficult time for the province and the party. The provincial economy is still among the most robust in Canada. It grew by 3.9% last year, compared with the national rate of 2.0%, and the unemployment rate is an enviable 4.9% compared with a national rate of 7.0%. But the economy is dominated by the energy industry, specifically the tar sands, and oil producers are becoming increasingly frustrated by obstacles in the way of getting Alberta crude to market.
Although his last post in the federal Conservative government led by Stephen Harper was as environment minister, Mr Prentice has strong ties to the oil industry. Donations from prominent energy-industry executives helped him raise C$1.8m for his leadership campaign, a war chest more than four times that of his closest rival. Prior to entering the race he had been helping Enbridge, the company behind the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline meant to take Alberta crude to the west coast, in its relations with First Nations (Canada’s indigenous Indians) who oppose the project. The day after his landslide victory he picked the former chief executive of Imperial Oil to head the team managing his transition from banker to premier.
Now the oil industry will be looking to the premier, who will be sworn in later this month, to help them get their pipelines built. The Northern Gateway pipeline is not the only one to face obstacles. Keystone XL, with its terminus in the southern United States, is held up pending a presidential permit. Energy East, which would reverse an existing natural-gas pipeline to transport Alberta crude to the east coast of Canada, still needs a completed environmental assessment and regulatory approval. Blocked to the south, west and east, the oil industry’s latest idea is to build a pipeline north to a port in the Arctic.
Just the oil brief alone will keep the new premier busy after he is sworn in later this month. But he must also win back Alberta voters. The Progressive Conservatives’ big tent is much smaller now that right-leaning members have left to form the Wildrose party, which currently leads in the opinion polls. Although the Progressive Conservatives won a convincing majority (62 of a possible 87 seats) in 2012, support started to slip within months.
Mr Prentice has clearly taken note. During the campaign he took pains to portray himself as a common man, who worked in a coal mine for seven summers to fund his university education. It worked with the party last weekend. Next he will have to persuade voters in a by-election that he will have to call in order to gain a legislative seat. But the real test of his and his party’s longevity will come in the next provincial election, which must take place between March and May 2016. Should Mr Prentice fail to secure another majority, the party will be tempted to go looking for another new leader.