Environment Minister Jim Prentice bows out gracefully

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The Gazette, Monday, November 8, 2010

Timing is everything in politics, especially about choosing a time to leave. It's typical of Jim Prentice's judgment, and his innate sense of class, that he got it right.

He received a firm offer from CIBC to become its deputy chair on Wednesday evening. On Thursday morning, he went to see Ethics Commissioner Mary Dawson for permission to accept. He went to see the prime minister to inform him before lunch, and announced his resignation to a stunned House of Commons after question period. By day's end, he'd even given up his car and driver.

Watching his elegant statement, many colleagues in the House knew he had just staged the perfect exit -seamless and above reproach. There was no suggestion that he was somehow conflicted, except from NDP Leader Jack Layton, who couldn't resist a cheap shot at the banks. There is no conflict of interest, because Prentice never had oversight over the financial-services industry.

It's true, as far as that goes, that the Bank Act is up for review next year. But Prentice wouldn't be lobbying the government, even if that were allowed by the post-employment guidelines. The banks all have lobbyists and consultants on the payroll for that. The CIBC is hiring an ambassador, much as BMO has hired the former clerk of the Privy Council, Kevin Lynch, as deputy chair, while former New Brunswick premier Frank McKenna has played a similar role for years with TD-Canada Trust.

The CIBC is hiring Prentice for what he knows about government, about the oilpatch, about industry and high technology, and about aboriginal issues, as well as what he knows about climate change and Canada's standing in the rest of the world.

Prentice wasn't just minister of the environment, and before that of Industry and Indian Affairs, in which roles he expanded national-park acreage by one-third, ran a $5 billion wireless spectrum auction, and brought closure to the painful aboriginal issue of residential schools that proved to be Stephen Harper's finest moment in the House of Commons.

Prentice was also, as Harper noted in his gracious tribute in the House, "effectively chief operating officer of the government" as chair of the Cabinet Operations Committee.

The street value of Prentice's knowledge and skill set, to say nothing of the names in his BlackBerry, is measured in millions of dollars a year, which is what CIBC will be paying him.

Prentice and Finance Minister Jim Flaherty easily stood out as the best two ministers in this government. His sudden departure is a huge and unexpected loss for Harper, who as recently as the summer asked ministers who planned to leave to let him know so he could make changes in a cabinet shuffle.

Prentice clearly had no plans to leave then, and the CIBC's approach was much more recent. But he also became increasingly frustrated by interference from the Prime Minister's Office on the climate-change file. The PMO was at once big-footing and foot-dragging on climate change, now known as "clean energy" in Washington, where the issue has been hopelessly gridlocked by the Republican sweep of last week's elections.

Altogether, it was an auspicious moment for Prentice to move on. And notwithstanding his declaration that he's leaving for good, Bay St. will be a convenient place for him to keep his political powder dry. At 54, his political future is behind him only if he forecloses it.

Part of Prentice's problem, looking ahead to a potential leadership bid, was that the Conservative Party was very unlikely to replace one leader from Calgary with another. But as of January, he'll be commuting between Calgary and Toronto. Not incidentally, he grew up in a hockey family in the northern Ontario town of Timmins. That's an Ontario narrative, as well as a Bay St., one, and it's potentially inconvenient for Flaherty, who looms as the leading Ontario candidate in any leadership, one with roots in Quebec.

But those decisions are probably at least two years away. Harper has one more election in him, a final effort to graduate to majority status, in which case a leadership would be five years away.

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