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Alberta budget: corporate lobbyists return to the legislature hallways as boisterous protesters chant outside

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Image: David J. Climenhaga

The thing about budget day at the legislature that news media seldom gets across is that the real news usually isn't the budget.

The budget's broad strokes are all known long before the details roll off the press at the Queen's Printer or its privatized equivalent.

There was certainly news at Alberta's budget speech yesterday, but very little of it had much to do with the anodyne words Finance Minister Travis Toews recited competently, if unconvincingly, on the floor of the legislature.

Everything is going to be fine, oil prices are headed up, up, up, eventually those tax cuts will generate jobs, and nurses and teachers just need to be reasonable and work with the government, Toews said, if not exactly in those words. Coronavirus? Global warming? Don't worry about 'em.

There you go, dear readers, Alberta's entire 2020 budget speech summarized in 37 words!

Toews is apparently the only member of Premier Jason Kenney's cabinet who sounds like a grownup when he speaks. This makes him an excellent spokesperson for the government when the job is to try to persuade voters the unpleasant remedy it's proposing is going to make us feel better when all the evidence suggests it'll do the opposite.

In other words, Toews did yesterday what lots of other Alberta finance ministers have done over the past half century -- tried to sound positive while he prayed for higher oil prices. As the Globe and Mail put it: "Alberta is banking on a significant recovery in the oil patch to pull the province out of its economic doldrums."

But actual news?

Inside the legislature building the creatures of the night are back. The bloodless corporate lobbyists who used to haunt the place as if they owned it in the days of the now defunct Progressive Conservatives are once again lurking in the marble hallways, their pasty faces staring out of office doorways.

But despite that big United Conservative Party majority and Toews's happy talk, not very many of them looked all that happy. It was like a night at the casino in the legislature yesterday -- everybody supposedly having fun but not very many of them smiling.

Outside the building, if you ask me, the real news was that a haphazardly organized rally, the March for What Matters, mainly drummed up on social media by a group with little experience in organizing public demonstrations, attracted about 7,000 energized people chanting "Hey! Hey! Ho! Ho! UCP has got to go!"

Yes, there was an Edmonton Public Schools teachers' convention that had just ended, attracting lots of teachers, and many public employees work nearby. Plus the weather was unseasonably warm -- if such a concept applies any more. But still, that doesn't fully account for either the size or the energy of the noisy crowd.

When former premier Rachel Notley showed up, protesters spontaneously broke into chants of "Rachel! Rachel! Rachel!" Repeatedly.

Yeah, it's Edmonton, which maybe is to Alberta what Austin is to Texas. But still ... A UCP staffer inside the building was overheard grimly dismissing the throng as "a little smaller than Greta's," a reference to the 12,000 Edmontonians who greeted Greta Thunberg's visit to the legislature's grounds in October last year.

I don't know if this worries Kenney and the UCP, but if I were in their boots it would worry me. Especially with precious little evidence their "job creating tax cuts" are creating very many jobs outside the ones that went to a Denver. An estimated 70,000 jobs have disappeared in Alberta since Premier Kenney came to power in April last year with his supposedly sure-fire plan to restore the Alberta advantage and make oil great again.

It's probably also news in this context that all the rude signage put in the building's windows by UCP political staffers last fall appeared to have been discreetly removed before yesterday's events.

A few actual tidbits of news emerged from the media lockups for those with the fortitude to attend them -- an exclusive club that included Progress Alberta's Duncan Kinney, who had little choice under the circumstances.

There's the fact the UCP intends to cut total public-sector compensation by $610 million in fiscal 2020-2021 "through staff reductions and by simplifying service delivery methods." Alberta Health Services compensation will drop $212 million, budget documents say. That of members of the Alberta Public Service, direct employees of the government, will fall by $138 million.

As Alberta governments often do, this budget depends on ridiculously optimistic estimates of what the price of oil will be to paint a rosy picture. Notley, now the Opposition leader, called the budget's forecast of US$58 per barrel for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) crude "magical thinking." WTI fell to $45.59 yesterday.

As for Kinney, he described what's to come in his colourful post-lockup report as a "grind of brutal austerity and class warfare." The budget, he wrote, is principally an ideological document, "and the UCP have the napkin tucked into their shirt and they're digging into the trash can of ideology like it's a sloppy lobster dinner."

A couple of well-known reporters from far-right fake news outfits -- interestingly not on the list of media sent to Kinney's lawyer when he was fighting for admission to the lockup -- put in surprise appearances, he noted.

Outside, there were speeches, too, but they were mostly shorter and more entertaining than Toews's, even if there were far too many of them.

I'm only going to quote one, by former Alberta Teachers Association president Larry Booi, who observed that "this government is like a collective case of obsessive compulsive disorder. The obsession is the oil industry and the compulsion is to cut public services."

In this life, especially in this province, Booi reminded the throng, "you don't get what you need and you don't get what you deserve. You get what you fight for and you get what you settle for."

They cheered lustily.

It's going to be an interesting year. The people who should be in despair are full of beans. The people who should be having the time of their lives look like they're dodging potentially deadly sunbeams.

No wonder Kenney's government would like to make protest illegal!

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 at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Image: David J. Climenhaga

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