Prentice move could indicate PM’s future

Published on April 26, 2014

In spite of Elections Canada dropping its investigation of questionable use of ‘robocalls’ during the last election, and the RCMP not laying charges against Nigel Wright, the prime minister’s former chief of staff, the speculation that Stephen Harper is stepping down is not abating.

One indication of whether Mr. Harper is planning to leave may come from what Jim Prentice does in the next few weeks. Mr. Prentice is the former Calgary MP who is now the senior vice president and vice chairman of CIBC, one of Canada’s largest banks. There is a lot of pressure being put on Mr. Prentice to forsake the skyscrapers of Toronto, return to the Bow River valley, and become leader of the Alberta Tories and premier of Canada’s wealthiest province.

Mr. Prentice is the nephew of former hockey star Dean Prentice, who played 22 seasons in the NHL. Jim Prentice served in Mr. Harper’s cabinet for four years, as minister of indian affairs, industry and environment. He has been a banker since late 2010.

No one will be playing closer attention to Mr. Prentice’s next move than the Liberals in Justin Trudeau’s office. No one presents a greater obstacle to Mr. Trudeau desire to return to 24 Sussex Drive, the prime minister’s residence, where he grew up as a child, than Mr. Prentice.

Many people have a pretty good sense of who, and what kind of a politician Jim Prentice is. Justin Trudeau remains an unknown quantity. And while he’s a bright shinning new star when compared to Mr. Harper, the aura fades when he is compared to someone of Mr. Prentice’s demeanour.

Mr. Prentice comes from the progressive, Red Tory wing of the Conservative Party. Were he to succeed Mr. Harper you would see a lot of disaffected Tories return to the fold. People who have been put off by some Mr. Harper’s right wing policies, his muzzling of his MPs and his scorched-earth, take-no-prisoners style of politics.

Recent polling shows that Mr. Harper is down to the rock hard, 25-30 per cent of voters that constitute the Conservative base. If the disaffected Red Tory support returned, it would greatly enhance their chances of re-election.

For Mr. Trudeau, Jim Prentice, poses an additional threat. Just as there are Red Tories, there are Blue Grits in the Liberal Party who would find Jim Prentice’s socially liberal and conservative fiscal policies appealing. Add the Red Tories and the Blue Grits to the Conservative base, in a three or four party election, you are back to the range of support needed for a majority government. All of which is academic should Mr. Harper decide to stay. And he might.

He can point to his handling of the economy, Canada’s in pretty good shape compared to the rest of the world. By standing up for democracy on Russia’s incursion of Ukraine, he has enhanced his profile on the world stage.

But countering these positives are a host of negatives. While he preaches democracy abroad he undermines it at home. He has adopted the practice of introducing huge omnibus budget bills that include a multitude of legislative changes that have little or nothing to do with the budget. These include such things as changing the rules for appointments to the Supreme Court. The omnibus bills, combined with time allocation procedures, limits debate on individual legislative changes. Not much democratic enhancement there.

And then there is the so called Fair Elections Act which many feel is an attempt to limit, not enhance voter participation.

Should the prime minister decide the negatives outweigh the positives, that his chances of winning another majority government aren’t there, then the death of former finance minister Jim Flaherty makes his exit somewhat easier. Stephen Harper has spent the last 12 years of his life in Ottawa, eight of them as prime minister.

He’s a westerner whose family is growing up as central Canadians. Few would fault him were he to say he doesn’t want to suffer the same fate as Jim Flaherty, who died within weeks of retiring so that he could spend time with his family. That while he is still young enough, and healthy enough, Stephen Harper wants to create a new, less demanding life for himself and his family.

If Jim Prentice opts to go to Alberta to become premier, then he has likely determined Stephen Harper isn’t going anywhere soon. If he stays at the bank, then he has likely read the tea leaves a little differently.

Alan Holman is a freelance journalist living in Charlottetown. He can be reached at: acholman@pei.eastlink.ca.