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Uh-oh! Alberta Premier Alison Redford wants to have a 'conversation' with us

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Alison Redford

Oh dear. Premier Alison Redford wants to have a "conversation' with us tonight.

Daddy's new job at the convenience store doesn't pay as much as the old one. We're all going to have to tighten our belts a little, and that means you kids too. We've had to cancel the snow clearing service -- so you’re going to have to shovel the walks yourselves if you still expect to get your allowance -- and it will be smaller, so get used to it! There will be no trip to Hawaii this winter.

In an email to her remaining Progressive Conservative party faithful yesterday, Redford explained how, this evening, "I will begin a conversation with Albertans about the challenges we face as a result of the rapidly falling price of Alberta oil. As loyal party supporters, I wanted to let you know first."

In this conversation, Redford explained, she will do all the talking. She'll talk for eight minutes on CTV, right after the suppertime news. After that, as part of Alberta's new reality, we'll all go into the kitchen and help with the dishes. There will be no conversing.

"In this year’s budget," the premiers email to the party loyalists went on, "we'll hold the line on our spending and we’ll live within our means." But she also promised "to focus our spending on the priorities that you told me were important. And that is exactly what we'll do."

Addressing us this way retrieves from the provincial Tickle Trunk a homey old propaganda technique favoured in Alberta by long-ago premier Ralph Klein -- the televised fireside message.

This was considered too lame even for premier Ed Stelmach, the kindly fellow who ran Alberta Inc. into the ground in the interregnum between Klein and Redford, but over at CTV right now they're probably assembling the gas-fire set that Klein used to use when he had something serious to chat with us about. Interestingly, every clip and shot of Klein's fireside chats seem to have been purged from the Interwebs!

Well, Alberta has a boom-and-bust economy that goes bust with metronomic regularity, but it's still always sort of amazing the way it catches our PC masters by surprise every time it does. Plan for it? Why bother when we can have a fireside chat on CTV two weeks before the March 7 Budget Speech?

Brian Mason, the leader of Alberta's New Democrats, adopted a more sinister tone than the premier yesterday, but his message nevertheless had the effect of reinforcing hers. "She promised Albertans in the election there would be no service cuts and she promised there would be no tax increases," he told the Edmonton Journal, by the sound of it through gritted teeth. "She's very likely to break both of those promises in this budget. I think the cuts we’re going to see are very serious."

Indeed, the cuts already seem to be starting. Yesterday, the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees announced it had been notified that 48 Licensed Practical Nurses' jobs were being eliminated in Edmonton to accommodate a $3-million budget cut to Capital Care Inc., a directly owned long-term-care subsidiary of Alberta Health Services.

Insiders say the union expects similar cuts at CareWest, the AHS long-term-care subsidiary in Calgary, and possibly others at large not-for-profit seniors' care operators.

Alberta Health Minister Fred Horne was unavailable for comment, conveniently out of the country while the LPNs got the bad news, doing a little chit-chatting himself with "the best European minds" in England and Ireland, two well-known paragons of health care management, with a side trip to Belgium for a convention. The AHS spokesman the media managed to dredge up claimed it was all part of a plan hatched long ago.

As for the province's other political leaders, Alberta Liberal Leader Raj Sherman just sounded put out that Redford wasn't going to hold her conversation in the Legislature and Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith actually sounded as if she were cheerfully looking forward to the premier’s message -- something to take shots at, maybe, or just a neoconservative predilection for service cuts perhaps.

Still, new Albertans are advised not to worry too much just yet. Those of us who have lived here for a while have all seen this show before -- literally, back when it starred Klein.

It usually ends up to be an exercise in expectations management -- a kind of reverse bait-and-switch scam that generations of Alberta Tory governments have perfected. First the bad news (that will be tonight), then the news that's not quite as bad as everyone expected (that'll be on March 7, accompanied by sighs of relief), and finally the return of happy days (a few months before the scheduled 2016 election).

If Alberta voters perform to expectations, we'll then reelect the Tories by a landslide!

Meanwhile, in other news yesterday, the chief economist of the Conference Board of Canada, said it was time for Alberta to return to a grownup tax system that would make government operations and public services sustainable and reduce the impact of entirely predictable wild swings in commodity prices.

"Not having a provincial consumption or sales tax is highly popular and has been great politics, but it denies the provincial government a steady and stable source of revenue through the business cycle," said Glen Hodgson in a research paper published yesterday.

Well, no kidding! But don't hold your breath waiting for the Alberta PCs to adopt a sensible approach to taxation, especially with the far-right Wildrose Party breathing down their neck.

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

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