September 8, 2014 / 10:16 PM / 3 years ago

New Alberta premier faces challenge winning back voters

CALGARY Alberta (Reuters) - Jim Prentice, a former key Cabinet minister in the government of Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has firm control over the province of Alberta’s governing Progressive Conservatives, but convincing voters to extend the party’s 43-year rule will be more challenging.

Prentice, 58, took nearly 80 percent of the votes for the party’s leadership on Saturday, trouncing two rivals from the Cabinet of former Premier Alison Redford, who resigned earlier this year following a series of spending scandals.

The former investment banker will become the sixth premier to lead Canada’s most successful political party since it rose to power in 1971. But the party lags in the polls as voters turn to the opposition Wild Rose party following a series of revelations over what was seen as profligate spending and abuses of power by his predecessor. Regaining their trust will be a challenge.

“It would be unwise for the Progressive Conservatives to be optimistic that electing a new leader will be all they have to do to turn things around and remain in power,” said Steve Patten, a politics professor at the University of Alberta. “There’s a big job ahead for them.”

Buoyed by revenue from the booming oil sands, the largest single source of U.S. oil imports, Alberta offers one of the country’s lowest tax rates and no sales tax.

Despite windfall revenue from oil, the province’s government is running a deficit as Redford ramped up spending on roads, hospitals and schools to cope with aging infrastructure and population growth.

Prentice has promised to balance the budget and end what is perceived as a culture of entitlement in the government. He appointed a five-person transition team including Tim Hearn, the former chief executive of Imperial Oil Ltd, Canada’s No. 2 integrated oil company.

“Under my leadership we will restore the bond of trust between Albertans and their elected officials, and return to sound conservative fiscal principles,” Prentice said in a statement.

Prentice will also have to continue to push for U.S. approvals for the controversial Keystone XL pipeline planned by TransCanada Corp and for construction of Enbridge Inc’s Northern Gateway pipeline to the Pacific Coast in order to boost prices that are often deeply discounted in the over-supplied U.S. Midwest, which now takes the bulk of the province’s exports.

Prentice, who must still win a seat in the Alberta legislature, has until 2016 before a general election is needed, giving him some room to regain the trust of the province’s voters.

“He’s got time on his side but he has to make some bold moves soon,” said Duane Bratt, chair of policy studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.

“If they’re scandal-free for a year and a half and the memories of Redford leave, if he’s able to balance the budget, if progress is made on Keystone and Northern Gateway, those are things he can run on.”

Editing by Matthew Lewis

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