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Bold and transformative it's not, but budget may still resuscitate Alberta Tory dynasty

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Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell

Do you feel as if your life has been fundamentally changed by yesterday's budget?

That was the real money question of the Alberta provincial budget, the first we've seen since Jim Prentice became premier.

Taxes are up, but not too painfully -- especially if you happen to be a teetotalling millionaire who doesn't smoke. There's a measure of progressivity in the income tax, which despite being a "temporary" measure will probably never go away. Any fights with the province's public sector unions have been postponed far into the future. No one should be fooled the new health care "levy" isn't really just another tax, destined for general revenues, but the branding is holding for now. There will be 1,700 jobs lost at Alberta Health Services, potential big trouble, but the minister of health, Stephen Mandel, and the CEO of AHS, Vickie Kaminski, are whispering reassuringly no front-line jobs will disappear and there will be no layoffs. There's even a promise money will eventually start to flow back into the Heritage Trust Fund.

Bold and transformative, this is not -- but it does kick all the 43-year-old Progressive Conservative government's most serious problems well down the road.

A bad-news budget it is -- but is the news bad enough for anyone to lose any sleep over?

And never mind that new PC leaders have promised it all before -- sometimes a promise is all it takes to get what you want.

The lead-up to the budget tabled yesterday by Finance Minister Robin Campbell -- the portentous predictions of earth-shattering changes in an era of perpetually low oil prices followed by soothing promises that management of the province's troubled finances is in the hands of thoughtful, responsible people until prices rebound -- were all an exercise in expectation management.

If Albertans conclude today their lives haven't changed all that terribly much, then Prentice and Campbell will have won their bet, can reasonably hope an election will go their way, and will likely call one in the next few days.

If it angers Albertans in significant numbers -- because some folks wanted bigger cuts and no tax increases and others wanted bigger tax increases and no cuts -- then they will have lost their bet and the PCs' electoral future will be clouded.

In that case, even though they've prepared for a quick election, the Prentice Government might hold off -- although, if they do, there's a good chance voters will like this budget less the more they get to know it.

Of course, it's hard to tell in the immediate aftermath of a Budget Speech just which way the wind is blowing. Representatives of the groups that show up at the Legislature for the media feeding frenzy that inevitably follows such major political events tend to emphasize the negative, and yesterday afternoon's was no exception, as you can read and hear for yourself.

Acting Wildrose Opposition Leader Heather Forsyth complained the budget contains the largest deficit and the largest tax increase in the province's history -- which is true.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley noted the premier's reluctance to raise business taxes for his corporate friends and funders and argued a health care system in shambles can hardly afford $160 million in cuts in a year -- which is also true.

But the PCs can claim amid the clamour with a ring of plausibility that if everyone is complaining, they must have hit the sweet spot!

The chickens will come home to roost when the cuts start to bite, especially if the government really does try to run the province according to user-pay principles. But if the electorate is sufficiently inattentive -- and no one can claim Alberta voters have paid much attention in the past three or four general elections -- the clucking sound won't be audible until well after the next vote.

And while Albertans may be annoyed at this or that, the smart money says most of them won’t lose any sleep about fundamental changes to their lives. In other words, Prentice and Campbell will have won their bet. 

So here's a prediction: If Danielle Smith can win her PC nomination fight in the Highwood riding on Saturday without the premier having to intervene on her behalf, while the memory of this budget is fresh in party members' minds and on the same day the hapless party she once led tries to pick a leader, the Tories are probably home free.

With a little guidance from their pollsters, the PCs will contrive to call an election as soon as politically possible -- say, right after the Easter break on April 7, notwithstanding former premier Alison Redford's constitutionally unsound "fixed election period" law.

Then they'll schedule the election as quickly as they can after that, in the first full week of May.

And if we're not careful, we’ll face another massive PC majority and someone will have to tell Albertans to take a look in the mirror if they want to see the cause of their problems!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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