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The poor little rich kid of Confederation brings down a budget

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Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews reads the province’s budget speech yesterday. Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

Happy St. Crispin's Day!

Appropriately enough, it's time for those of us who live here in Wild Rose Country to cry, "Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!"

Alberta is Alberta again! Yesterday's vicious austerity budget proves it.

Alberta's once again the poor little rich kid of Confederation, crying poverty, throwing its weight around, and careening from knee-jerk austerity to pre-election profligacy as the province's economy careens from boom to bust.

As of yesterday, pretty much as when Ralph Klein was still running the place, we were back to operating like what University of Alberta professor Russell Cobb describes as the failed state of Oklahoma, except that this time we've already seen the movie and we know it doesn't have a happy ending.

Klein, who went to his eternal reward in 2013, did a lot of damage to Alberta with his austerity campaign through the 1990s, keeping taxes ridiculously low by running on fossil fuel royalties, leaving a huge infrastructure deficit, and putting health care into a state of chaos from which it's never quite recovered.

That said, feckless as he was, Klein didn't encourage actual separatist lunatics to torque up the fight with Ottawa that all Alberta premiers have, or set up an inquisition with a snitch line to justify a discredited conspiracy theory. And he threw Stephen Harper's independantiste firewall manifesto into the trashcan where it belonged instead of recycling it.

Plus, then-premier Klein -- who as a matter of historical record thought now-Premier Kenney was a sanctimonious pest -- had no ambition to be prime minister of Canada and never campaigned very enthusiastically for the federal chapter of his party. By contrast, it was to accommodate the Blue Team in the recent federal campaign -- won by Kenney's arch foe, Liberal Justin Trudeau on Monday -- that explains why this first UCP budget had to wait more than six months to get to the floor of the legislature.

Klein also didn't engage in serial climate change denial and obstructionism, although planetary warming wasn't really a thing yet. But he could actually get along with public sector unions when he tried.

Judging from yesterday's budget and recent pronouncements recorded in this space, Kenney seems determined to bring us the worst of the Klein years with none of the occasional flashes of cheerful decency or self-deprecating humour Klein sometimes offered up.

When the dust has settled, the cuts in yesterday's budget -- introduced by Finance Minister Travis Toews, as is tradition; wearing an old pair of cowboy boots, as isn't -- will work out to about the same as Klein's, maybe worse.

That is to say, if you add budgeted cuts of "only" 2.8 per cent a year over the life of the four-year fiscal plan to the combined expected annual impact of population growth and inflation, it's the '90s all over again. The UCP says that doesn't matter. It does.

And this time, if the prognosticators are right, there may never be another petroleum boom, which apparently doesn't bother anyone around here enough to stop running the economy on fumes and implement a sensible taxation scheme so we can manage the place like grown-ups.

Indeed, Toews indicated the UCP would impose more austerity -- the opposite of what most economists recommend -- if there is a worldwide recession. So do up your seatbelts, Albertans.

The strong revenge aspect to this budget will see big cuts to civil service jobs, attempted rollbacks to public employees' pay, skyrocketing university tuition, smackdowns for uppity municipalities, and two major hospital projects put on ice in disloyal Edmonton while a big one proceeds in more reliably Conservative Calgary.

This may or may not result in the made-in-Alberta recession the Alberta Federation of Labour predicted the day before yesterday. And it may or may not result in the creation of many jobs, as the government promises. But it will certainly prompt howls of unhappiness when Albertans begin to feel the pain.

Not that that will make much difference. Chances are good Kenney will successfully channel the rage back onto Prime Minister Trudeau, equalization payments to Quebec, carbon taxes, and the failure of Ottawa to complete the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion by yesterday.

Experiencing déjà vu all over again, Alberta's beleaguered progressives are preparing to resist this foolishness as best they can. The smart money says there's not much they can do.

But just remember, folks, in 1415, the smart money wasn't on the English army with King Henry in the vasty fields of France -- outnumbered, poorly armed, demoralized, and far from home. And just look what happened on this day that year at Agincourt!

And gentlemen in England now a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs'd they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's day.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

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