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Alberta's Electrolux Speech: Breathtaking in its vacuity, but quite possibly effective

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Alberta Premier's Chief of Staff Stephen Carter

It was either the best of Throne Speeches or it was the worst of Throne Speeches. Heck, maybe it was both at the same time.

Yesterday being the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Dickens, maybe there's something powerfully symbolic in that assessment of the first Throne Speech by the Progressive Conservative government of Alison Redford.

If the purpose of a Speech from the Throne, as historically has been agreed, is to set out the broad goals of the government and describe the initiatives it will undertake to accomplish those goals, then yesterday's speech was a spectacular failure.

Indeed, it was breathtaking in its vacuity. Talk about low-bridging it! This speech was so content-free the Tory barge could slip unnoticed under any bridge, no matter how close the deck was to the water.

To call this speech the Electrolux Speech does it a disservice. It was so unenlightening it made one think of a stellar black hole -- dense enough to attract matter, even light, into its dark core!

Oh, the speech haltingly read by Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell was replete with cheerful sentiments -- "your government will make Alberta the best jurisdiction anywhere… ," "your government will treat Albertans' money with the same care and respect they do, spending wisely on the services Albertans count on for an outstanding quality of life… ," "your government will provide seniors with the supports, services and care they need to remain healthy, happy and productive… ," "patients in need of medical attention will be able to get it." Yadda-yadda.

There were even a few choice comparisons of the Alison Redford Tories to the Peter Lougheed Tories -- though without a whiff of the "bold" and "imaginative" policies that made even Lougheed's enemies respect his leadership. As Alberta Federation of Labour President Gil McGowan quipped after the speech: "Peter Lougheed said hi to my Grade 8 class when we visited the Legislature! Premier, you're no Peter Lougheed…"

Between that stuff and the four closing references to God -- "May God bless you all; God bless Alberta; God bless Canada; God save the Queen!" -- there was barely a hint about how any of this is going to be achieved. No, that's not quite right. There were no hints at all!

The broad goals of this government are clear enough: heavenly perfection right here on the Great Plains. The initiatives to be undertaken to accomplish it? Insufficient data.

The closest thing to even a hint of a hint in the speech was the suggestion that since the province's "current fiscal framework relies too heavily on volatile energy revenue as a source of income … it's fine for foundational change. It won't be easy, but it is the right way to better manage the annual unpredictably in the budgeting process."

Say what? Foundational change? That's it? Oh yeah, and we'll have zero-based budgeting, except that we'll call it something else.

The Wildrose Party will say this means new taxes. Possibly some of the other parties will too. Maybe someone will wonder if this means no petroleum royalties. The Redford Tories, one expects, will just smile and say very little at all. And that one's about the only line in the whole speech anyone is going to be able to get their teeth into!

Look, it's perfectly clear what's going on here. The government's strategy -- doubtless devised by Stephen Carter, Premier Redford's demonstrably clever chief of staff -- is to say nothing, nothing at all, that can get the government in trouble.

Their own polls look good, and some of the others do too, although there are dark hints that a Sun poll today may contain some surprises. But the PCs are clearly counting on being able to coast through another election without a major upheaval. Describing an actual policy in detail might give the opposition something to take shots at, so no policies will be described.

"We thought they were going to give us a few piñatas to take a whack at," a wistful Wildrose advisor commented, a little plaintively. "There's nothing there."

That's almost certainly Carter's idea. The only question is whether or not it will work. The jury's still out on that, of course.

One seasoned political veteran told me with a straight face he couldn't believe Albertans would fall for it. "It's insulting!"

But the same strategy in the hands of the late Senator Keith Davy worked for Pierre Trudeau in the 1980 federal campaign, as Trudeau press secretary Patrick Gossage recalls fondly in this 2011 tribute to the Senator. At any rate, it spelled the end of Joe Clark, although it was left to another Conservative named Brian Mulroney to actually dispatch that poor fellow.

Gossage says of the campaign technique we are witnessing now in the hands of Carter: "This was and is … the classic strategy for politicians leading in the polls."

It would be fair, though, to say that Carter is taking it farther than most political strategists would dare to advise their charges, although one would think there would have to be a few more details in the Budget.

If it works, as it very well may, Carter will be hailed as a genius. If it doesn't, well, all we can say for sure is that any failure is bound to be spectacular.

All that remains to be seen is when Carter will advise his premier to call an election.

Will the Conservatives really wait until after the Legislature has debated and passed the budget that will be introduced by Finance Minister Ron Liepert tomorrow? Third Reading would come in late March, with an election late in April.

Assuming another Conservative victory -- as the Conservatives obviously do -- that would let them run the province for the better part of the year without the nuisance of having to answer annoying Opposition questions in the Legislature.

Or will they find some excuse to pull the plug sooner, once they see how the public has responded to the budget?

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, Alberta Diary.

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