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The Six-Point-Four-Billion-Dollar Question: Will the Redford Tories drop their budget balancing act?

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Naheed Nenshi

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It is not unreasonable, in a purely academic sort of way, to recognize that no major natural event happens without political consequences.

As Mitt Romney, the now nearly forgotten Republican candidate in last November's U.S. election lamented not long after he was soundly beaten by President Barack Obama, "obviously, a hurricane with a week to go before the election stalled our campaign."

Hurricane Sandy may or may not have actually damaged Romney's presidential chances. Certainly the president's pitch-perfect reaction to the disaster did Obama no harm. But under the circumstances the Republican contender's reaction was understandable enough.

It is a loser's prerogative, though, to blame outside factors, as a bad craftsman blames his tools. It would be extremely unseemly for a winner to have gloated about it, though, so a polished politician like President Obama will likely never have anything to say about this topic, even in his memoires.

But we can take it as axiomatic that the devastating floods that hit Southern Alberta last week are bound to have political consequences in this province, even if it's not yet clear just what they will be.

The first victim, it almost goes without saying, will be right-wing Calgary talk radio jock Dave Rutherford, who had been kicking around the idea of challenging Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi for the city's top job next Oct. 21.

But Nenshi's response to the evacuation of 100,000 of his city's citizens was so graceful and sure-footed -- the right answers, confidently delivered, empathetic, reassuring and marvellously briefed -- that Rutherford surely realizes his campaign is over before it began. He could still run for city council, and he may now need the job, but the mayor's chair is not very likely to be his for at least four years after October.

The prime minister of Canada and the premier of Alberta are both Calgarians as well, but next federal and provincial elections are far enough away that the impact on them of the floods and their aftermath cannot be calculated with quite as much ease.

Still, it's said here that both Stephen Harper and Alison Redford acted competently as the disaster unfolded -- they were where they should have been, acting as they needed to act -- so their political performances as the waters peaked will do them no harm.

Nor does it hurt them -- ironic as it may seem -- that they were able to stand beside the liberal Mayor Nenshi.

You can't blame the Opposition parties for trying to capitalize on the issues at hand. Alberta NDP Leader Brian Mason assailed the provincial government for failing to implement the recommendations of a 2006 flood mitigation report. Wildrose Opposition Leader Danielle Smith seemed genuinely upset that some High River residents have not been allowed back into their homes. And it's hard not to empathize with her on that, whether or not one agrees, seeing as she lives there.

But it seems unlikely voters will worry much about either of those issues, as long as the provincial and federal responses to the flood send the right signals, which so far they have.

Harper's implicit message that municipal voters will not be penalized for finding themselves in the path of a natural disaster they could do nothing to control or mitigate sends a message that will comfort a lot of voters in all parts of Canada, which will do his chances no harm in 2015, regardless of what the man actually thinks.

Redford's explicit message seems to be that no expense will be spared to rebuild Calgary -- a billion dollars cash on the barrelhead right now and whatever it takes to rebuild every single house, bridge and sidewalk.

Some political commentators see this as a political liability for the premier by 2016. I say it will be the opposite: enormously popular in every part of the province, as long as no one is seen to be suffering so that Calgary can get back on its feet.

Surely neither Redford nor Obama would have wished these natural disasters on their constituents, no matter how they played out for them, but it is said here Redford is as likely to benefit from last week's floods as Obama benefited from Hurricane Sandy last fall.

For one thing, the disaster virtually eliminates the budget-balancing problem she would certainly have otherwise faced. 

"Are we sticking to plan to balance the budget? No, we're not," the premier stated on Monday. "The world changed on Thursday morning and I think that as a Treasury Board we've come to terms with that. We think Albertans have come to terms with that. This is like nothing we've ever faced before and we're going to respond to the challenge."

The Six-Point-Four-Billion-Dollar Question -- to coin a phrase, give or take a billion -- is what will the Redford Government's strategy be as far as other spending goes?

With deficit pressure lifted by happenstance, and the danger of regional rivalry a genuine threat over time, the government could drop the entire deficit-fighting drama and spend money where it will win support with little fear of harmful repercussion.

Any opposition party that dared to assail her for spending "too much," especially one positioned to the right of her government, would risk looking churlish at best and heartless at worst.

This reality may very well kill the Wildrose Party’s current strategy as dead as Rutherford's putative challenge to Mayor Nenshi!

Or the government could double down and say the added burden of flood repair requires tighter fiscal discipline everywhere else -- a strategy that, as noted, brings its own dangers.

The conventional wisdom in Alberta this morning seems to be that Redford's Progressive Conservative government will choose the path of parsimony and clamp down on most other spending.

My prediction is the opposite: they'll spend more and worry less about balancing the budget.

Why not? Certainly if former Energy Minister Ron Liepert's 2012 prediction was right and there's a bitumen bonanza not that far over Alberta's horizon, the Redford PCs could very well now spend to their heart’s content and balance the budget before too long.

If they do that, and repair Calgary swiftly and beautifully as well, it may not seem like that long before we're all complaining about how "50 years is enough!"

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

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