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Alberta finance minister's break with tradition followed by run of bad fortune for UCP. Coincidence?

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A fine pair of cowboy boots like these, hand-made in Alberta, can be hell to break in, but it's worth the effort, especially if you're a finance minister. Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

While nervously awaiting Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews's budget, let's spare a thought for the uniquely Canadian tradition of finance ministers buying new shoes to wear on budget day.

According to the Wikipedia, Walter Edward Harris, who served a spell as finance minister in Louis St. Laurent's Liberal cabinet, was likely the first to deliver his budget speech while freshly shod.

As the American author Tom Wolfe observed, traditions are often established instantly, and whether intentionally or just because he fancied a pair of new shoes, this may have been the result of Harris's footwear choice in 1955.

At any rate, Conservative Donald Fleming did the same thing in 1960, so that's a tradition right there in modern journalistic terms. It beats bringing the budget in a tatty red box, whatever you may think of the idea.

However, the tradition seems to have been honoured as often in the breach as the observance. Walter Gordon, a Liberal, ignored it three times in the 1960s. Mitchell Sharp, also a Liberal, brought it back in 1966 and subsequently ignored it, complaining that, "later, I learned there was no tradition behind it at all."

And so it has haphazardly gone since then, in Ottawa as well as provincial and territorial capitals.

Here in Alberta, I kid you not, one finance minister delivered his budget speech in a pair of roller blades, although whether or not they were new has been left unrecorded. That would be Stockwell Day, Alberta finance minister from 1997 to 2000.

He later disgraced himself as new leader of the paleo-conservative Canadian Alliance Party by racing away from a news conference on a jet ski clad in a skin-tight wetsuit, as inauspicious a day in Canadian political history as one can imagine, even now difficult to unsee.

Alberta's present finance minister decided to forgo the tradition in 2019 and wore his old cowboy boots instead.

At the time, Toews, like most would-be iconoclasts, claimed principle and symbolism as the reasons for his choice. "To me, these boots represent a part of our heritage and speak to the practical and resilient character of Albertans," he said at the time. "I am committed to fighting for Albertans by ending overspending and by living within our means." Yadda-yadda.

Me, I'm skeptical. Toews is an accountant who runs a corporate cattle ranch, but that's close enough to farming to be able to get away with wearing cowboy boots and a suit at the same time, I guess. But as anyone who's bought cowboy boots knows, breaking in a new pair can be hell. I suspect he just didn't want his feet to hurt.

Hitherto, it appears there has been no widely accepted penalty for breaking the tradition, and that's actually what I wish, dear readers, to speak with you about today.

No one can deny that since Toews read his budget speech in 2019, things seem to have headed rapidly downhill for Premier Jason Kenney, the United Conservative Party, and perhaps the finance minister himself.

Could it be that Toews's failure to fork over enough for some nice new boots was the source of all the UCP's troubles since that date?

I admit, the more likely explanation is hubris, incompetence, and stubborn adherence to an ideology that clearly doesn't work. Just the same, it wouldn't be the worst thing for independent shoe stores and Canada's footwear industry if Canadian finance ministers got the idea they'd better wear new shoes on budget day!

I'll leave it there except to say that Harris, the apparent originator of the tradition, was a Great Canadian. He will forever be remembered as the man who gave us registered retirement savings plans!

He once wrote a letter of resignation as finance minister because a journalist claimed the budget speech had been leaked. It was soon revealed, fortunately, that the leak was a rumour started by one journalist to embarrass another, an early example of what we now know as fake news.

Alas, unlike new shoes on budget bay, the honourable tradition that finance ministers should step down if their plans leak in advance has no life left in it at all.

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.

Image credit: David J. Climenhaga

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