Banking on his future

Prentice's departure for CIBC job leaves huge hole in Harper government

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Sun Media, Friday, November 5, 2010

Jim Prentice’s resignation as environment minister, to become vice-chair of the CIBC, rocked the Harper government and shocked Ottawa Thursday.

His voice quivering with emotion, Prentice announced his resignation to a hushed House of Commons following question period. He’d been to the see the prime minister before lunch to inform him of his decision to leave Ottawa after six years, four and a half of them in government.

Widely regarded as one the strongest ministers in the government, Prentice also served as chair of the Cabinet Operations Committee and was, in effect, the government’s chief operating officer.

Known for his mastery of his files — first at Indian affairs, and then at industry before moving to environment — Prentice had clearly come to a personal crossroads.

On the one hand, he’d evidently had enough of taking orders from the Prime Minister’s Office on climate change, in which the government marched in lockstep with the Obama administration in Washington.

After the Republican rout of the Democrats in Tuesday’s U.S. mid-term congressional elections, cap-and-trade legislation, as well as emission-abatement targets, are dead in Washington. Partnering with the Americans for a level playing field on climate change was a sensible way to go until it became clear it was going nowhere, at which point Canadian sovereignty became the issue.

On the other hand, Prentice was looking at a compelling career opportunity, one that will pay him handsomely while allowing him to keep his hand in public policy issues as ambassador for one of the country’s biggest banks.

CIBC becomes the third Canadian bank to offer a new career to senior politicians or public servants. Frank McKenna, the former New Brunswick premier and ambassador to Washington, is deputy chair of TD-Canada Trust, while former clerk of the Privy Council Kevin Lynch is deputy chair of BMO Financial Group.

Should a vacancy occur in the Conservative leadership after the next election, Prentice would be able to mount a well-financed challenge from Bay Street, in addition to his easy access to campaign fundraising from the oil patch.

Taking job OK’d

Prentice does not have any problems with post-employment guidelines since he’s never had oversight of financial services in any of his cabinet portfolios. But he did receive a permission slip from ethics commissioner Mary Dawson that he was within his rights to accept the bank’s offer.

Prentice’s sudden and dramatic departure deprives Stephen Harper of one of his two top ministers — the other one being Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

It also opens the door to a cabinet shuffle — for the moment House Leader John Baird will serve as acting environment minister, a post he occupied full time for a year before Prentice moved over from industry after the 2008 election.

Prentice’s departure comes just a month before the annual UN climate change conference of the parties (COP16) in Mexico.

While Prentice went out of his way Thursday to effusively praise Harper’s leadership, as well as thanking him for the opportunity to serve in his government, it’s been no secret in Ottawa in recent months that he was increasingly exasperated by the PMO’s persistent foot-dragging on climate change, as well as its constant meddling on communications and messaging. Prentice has been known for having one of the top staffs on the Hill and they didn’t like taking orders from 20somethings in the PMO.

Quite suddenly, one of the very best ministers in this government is gone. There’s more than an empty chair on the front bench.

There’s a gaping hole in it.

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