Give Premier Jim Prentice his due, by floating his balloon about a sales tax in Canada's only remaining sales-tax-free zone he really has Albertans sitting up and taking notice.
He's obviously taken former Alberta finance minister and PC leadership candidate Ted Morton's advice to heart that "this fiscal crisis is too good to waste."
Nowadays, even tables full of youthful construction workers in downtown Edmonton coffee shops -- not the kind of people you'd expect to pay much attention to politics -- are yakking heatedly about Prentice's calculatedly gloomy call for Albertans to give some thought to how best to fix his party's perennial problem managing oil prices that go up and down like an elevator.
Not so long ago we were rolling in dough, and now Prentice says we're broke, I heard one of a group of construction guys tell his buddies yesterday before pausing a beat to ask: "What I want to know is where all the money went?"
Actually, that's the $11-billion question almost everybody in Alberta is wondering about, even if they're too polite to say it out loud.
Prentice's approach -- understandable enough under the circumstances he finds himself in -- is to let his PC party accept a little bit of the blame ("we have not done a good job with our pubic finances") but to argue it's really all of us who are at fault ("it is time for all of us to recognize this, to look in the mirror, and to recognize that we have to do something about it.")
That way he can claim that with his steady hand on the tiller, keeping his PCs in government is best way to solve Alberta’s chronic management problems, even if it's not the most obvious solution.
If you think about it, this argument may meet the popular culture's definition of insanity, generally attributed to that other Einstein, the one named Albert. But, just the same, it’s likely to work -- especially now that Premier Prentice has cleverly neutralized his principal opposition by absorbing most of its MLAs into his own caucus.
His next step will likely be to look for some of his own trusted people to run in a few ridings in the early general election that each day seems more likely to be called soon.
The PCs have already indicated they want to have all their candidates in place by March 15. Yesterday, Government House Leader Jonathan Denis announced that Alberta's Legislature will get together again on March 10, this time with 11 Wildrose MLAs sitting with sunshiny faces in their places on the PC side of the House.
"While the date is not yet finalized, Budget 2015 is expected to be tabled by Finance Minister Robin Campbell by the end of March," Denis also said.
So, once the budget is passed -- who knows, maybe even with a sales tax tossed in -- it'll be almost time to call an election while what's left of the Wildrose opposition, which the government still views as its main enemy, is still in utter in disarray.
And don't worry about Ralph Klein's law requiring a referendum before a sales tax is imposed. The Alberta Taxpayer Protection Act states that "a member of the Executive Council may introduce in the Legislative Assembly a Bill that imposes a general provincial sales tax only if, before the introduction of the Bill, the Chief Electoral Officer announces the result of a referendum conducted under this Act on a question that relates to the imposition of the tax."
It's almost a certainly that Albertans would defeat such a referendum just for sport.
That might work for Premier Prentice, of course. He could then get around to cutting public service salaries with a shrug and a sigh of "what else could I do?"
On the other hand, opponents would hardly be able to complain that the government had no mandate to amend the law and impose the tax anyway if the PCs had just been re-elected with a big majority, as seems likely in today’s weird circumstances.
However Prentice decides to play this, most of the normal Albertans I hear talking about this sound more like former Alberta NDP leader Brian Mason -- if only they had some way to know that the NDP is saying what they think.
Mason, now his party's Treasury Board critic, said on Wednesday that "Prentice's talk about a sales tax is an attempt to divert attention away from the unfair and negligent tax policies the PCs have been implementing for years."
"The deliberately unfair tax system this government has imposed on Albertans has resulted in the underfunding of public services and delays in building new schools and hospitals," he stated, noting that the NDP rejects a sales tax as a solution "because it hits middle class and working families harder than wealthy ones."
But how is anyone to know about this? The NDP may be the province’s only fully functioning Opposition party, and it may be the only Opposition party led by someone who didn't used to be a PC MLA, but that doesn't mean the mainstream media is paying any attention.
By and large, media completely ignored Mason's comments, even though he was saying exactly what a lot of people in Alberta are thinking, including the guys at the next table.
"This government has squandered windfall resource revenues in the good years, rewarding banks, energy companies and Alberta's wealthiest individuals at the expense of average Alberta families," Mason said. "Thirty per cent of Alberta's programs now depend on volatile royalty revenues. When oil prices drop, as they inevitably do, we lay off teachers and nurses. Albertans deserve better."
Yeah, we do. But if we're going to do anything about it, we're going to have to find a way to talk about more than just Prentice's dubious choices. Somehow I doubt the mainstream media is going to be much help.
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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