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Column / L.Ian MacDonald

Jim Prentice: A public servant who cared more about policy than power

Jim Prentice belonged to a class of politician that, in these days of operatic opportunism, is well worth drawing attention to: the ones whose decision to test their talents and principles in elected office ends up being a net gain for the people they serve.

Jim thought of politics as a high calling in public service.

He was a good and decent man, liked and admired on all sides, as was evident in the shock and sorrow at the news of his tragic death in the crash of a private aircraft after takeoff from Kelowna bound for home in Calgary.

In Ottawa, he is remembered as one of the strongest ministers in the Harper government, one who worked as a progressive voice to broaden the Conservative brand, and who cared more about policy than power.

At Indian Affairs, he worked closely with First Nations, Métis and Inuit, and won their respect because as a former property rights lawyer who had worked on behalf of indigenous people, he understood that their agenda began with land and treaty claims. Prentice, as generously noted by Justin Trudeau in his tribute, also played “an important role in finalizing the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.”

At Industry, he turned a complex department into a central agency whose officials loved working for him as a man of ideas and a problem solver. At Environment, his role was to reconcile challenging files such as climate change with energy and the Calgary oil patch he represented in the House. As he often said, then and later, “the environment and energy are two sides of the same coin.”

Most of all, as chair of the cabinet operations committee, “ops”, he was chief operating officer of the government in all but name. He was in charge of getting things done, not by pushing colleagues around, but by the power of persuasion. In the House and before committee, he understood the opposition’s role, and worked the other side of the aisle.

And in a government led by a social introvert, Prentice was sociable, personable and completely authentic.

In what can be a town without pity, he was a man with no enemies. Even political adversaries were his friends. Along with Jim Flaherty and John Baird, Prentice was an informed and companionable after-hours source for the media. They also happened to be the three best ministers in the government of the day.

And then one day in November 2010, he rose in the House after question period and announced that he was resigning to become vice-chair of CIBC. I was in the Press Gallery in the House that day and watched Flaherty looking up, gobsmacked, as his friend dropped his bombshell. Later that day, I asked Flaherty what he’d been thinking at that moment. “I was thinking, ‘You’ve made the perfect escape!’”

In his new role, Prentice sometimes returned to Ottawa for a speech or event sponsored by the bank. He clearly enjoyed keeping his hand in policy conversations, but equally enjoyed making big money at CIBC and from corporate directorships such as Bell and Canadian Pacific.

In any conversation about an eventual successor to Stephen Harper, Prentice’s name was always mentioned. Had he remained at CIBC, there’s no doubt he would have been the leading outside candidate for the leadership.

Instead, he answered another call in 2014, when the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta asked him to come home after the implosion of Alison Redford’s leadership. He arrived to applause and acclaim, as if he were riding in the Stampede parade. In October 2014, the PCs swept four byelections, including his own seat in the legislature. As it turned out, this was not a harbinger of things to come. Economic events were already conspiring against Prentice.

He had the utter misfortune to become Alberta’s 16th premier in September of 2014, just as the price of oil was collapsing. Every five- dollar drop in the price of oil was $1 billion off the province’s books. On the day he took office, oil was at $95 a barrel; when he brought in his first budget in March 2015 oil had plummeted to less than $55 a barrel, costing the province $8 billion in royalties, and plunging Alberta into a deep deficit.

Six months into office, Prentice was looking at a $5 billion deficit and $2 billion in spending cuts, in a province that had the highest-paid public service, from schools to hospitals, in the country. Alberta also had the lowest provincial taxes—a flat rate of 10 per cent compared to marginal rates into the mid-20s in Quebec and Ontario, and no provincial sales tax. And as Prentice well knew, a provincial sales tax was a political dog that wouldn’t hunt.

“On the one hand we’ve had the highest cost of public services and on the other we’ve had the lowest taxation regime of anyone in Canada,” Prentice said in a long form Q&A with Policy magazine just weeks before his budget.

There was pushback against the deficit among Albertans, and Prentice did not help matters when he gave a CBC radio interview in which told them to “look in the mirror” for the answer to Alberta’s fiscal plight.

Then, when he could have taken the summer to see how it played out, he called an election in the spring of 2015, a year and a half before the government’s term was to expire in September 2016. And in the leaders’ debate, in a defining negative moment, he told NDP Leader Rachel Notley: “I know, the math is hard.” He was actually talking about the math of her campaign platform, not about her. There wasn’t a sexist bone in his body—his wife Karen is an accomplished Calgary lawyer, and he was a proud father of three grown daughters.

The decline before the fall really began just before Christmas in 2014, when Prentice and Opposition Leader Danielle Smith announced that she and eight of her Wildrose colleagues were crossing the floor to join the PCs. The political class saw this as a coup.

Alberta voters thought otherwise, as they discussed it over the holidays, that it was the opposition’s job to overthrow the government, not the other way around.

In a way, the PC party’s age was showing after 43 years in office, and the 2015 election became a change campaign. The Conservatives fell to third place, with only nine seats, including Prentice’s own, which he resigned that night.

But he did a good job of moving on with his life. He joined a private equity firm, did a spell as a fellow at the Canada Institute of the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington. And he wrote a book on the environment and energy, to be published next spring, posthumously as fate would have it.

It is a cruel ending to a life of achievement for himself and his family, and accomplishment for his province and country, both of which he deeply loved. His loss is deeply mourned, but he leaves an impressive legacy.

L. Ian MacDonald, Editor of Policy, is the author of five books and served in Washington from 1992-94 as head of public affairs at the Canadian Embassy. lianmacdonald@policymagazine.ca