The Alberta Legislature press gallery, the most chronically underworked legislature press gallery in the country, is all abuzz with election gossip.
The Progressive Conservatives have kicked their candidate selection process into high gear, leading to speculation that Premier Jim Prentice might call a spring election. Gossip mongers are also suggesting that the PC party’s decision to offer free memberships to Wildrose members is another sign that Prentice is going to the polls when the snow melts.
At first glance, there would seem to be no chance of an election. We actually have a semi-set date for the next election. By law, it must be held sometime March and May 2016. Ah, but there’s a loophole — it can be called at anytime at the discretion of the Lieutenant-Governor, a vestige of our colonial past. Of course, no Lieutenant Governor (as useless a position as exists in a democracy) would call an election unless asked by the government, so it’s possible that Prentice could go to the Lt.-Gov. and ask for a vote.
Even though no Lt.-Gov. would send a premier packing when requesting an election, Prentice would need some justification, however feeble, for calling a vote a full year ahead of time. Even in our system, Prentice would need a better reason than, “Cause I feel like it”.
If Prentice and the PC brain trust are actually thinking of calling a vote, they’re going to need several reasons so they don’t appear to be shamelessly cynical and power hungry. No amount of Eau du Excuse will hide the stink from calling an unnecessary election, but they will have to try. Possible excuses are:
• We are heading into a period of economic uncertainty with falling oil prices, and the PCs need a mandate from the people for the tough economic decisions that have to be made;
• Prentice, as an unelected premier, wants a mandate from the people;
• The defection of the Wildrose MLAs has changed the landscape so much, an election is needed to clear the table.
OK, they all suck. There is no way Prentice can call an election without looking like a shameless, cynical, power-hungry politician, essentially Ralph Klein without the ‘charm’.
So there’s no reason to call an election. But that doesn’t mean he won’t.
A spring election would be a guaranteed win for the Tories. What other possible options are there? In the midst of rocky economic times, voters will not be willing to turn over power to whomever might be the leader of the Wildrose, or to the Liberals, or the NDP. They would hold their noses and vote PCs.
But at what cost? Prentice already has a massive majority in the legislature. If he really needs to make tough economic choices, which he will, he already has the go-ahead based on the previous election results. With emotions still raw following the mass defection of Wildrosers, the public could easily turn against his newly-minted MLAs, giving the Wildrose a life-saving boost in popularity. In Edmonton, where the Wildrose is a non-factor, angry voters will turn to the Liberals or NDs, perhaps with enough force to cost some of the less-inspired Edmonton MLAs (that would be most of them) their jobs.
So yes, the PCs would win a spring election. But it would permanently damage Prentice’s so-far sterling reputation for fairness, brand the PCs as shameless opportunists, and result in the party having fewer seats in the legislature.
Prentice should rid himself of any notion of holding a spring election. The smart, honest thing to do would be to make the tough decisions the party has been chosen to make, get accustomed to the new reality of $50 oil, and show the public they can govern in bad times as well as good. Unless, of course, they don’t think they CAN govern in bad times as well as good.
Prentice’s choices are clear. He can call an election, win it, but be branded a shameless, cynical, old-school political hack. Or he can show us what he can do by governing for the next year, then letting the public vote on the job he’s done.
Not a tough call. But this is politics, after all.