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Boring conservatism trumps bold conservatism in Premier Jim Prentice's dull but confident throne speech

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Donald Ethell

Welcome to the new-old politics of Alberta, in which boring conservatism trumps bold conservatism.

Yesterday's Alberta throne speech may have been one of the more boring documents you've encountered in a long time, possibly your life. The thing you've got to understand, though, is that from the perspective of Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice, that's a good thing!

The purpose of a throne speech, which is always read in a Canadian province by the lieutenant-governor but written by the ruling party, is supposed to set the policy agenda of the government for the next session of the Legislature.

If that is the case, then it’s clear from yesterday afternoon's throne speech in the Alberta Legislature that the policy agenda of the Prentice Government is to hand the Wildrose Opposition its lunch in the next general election.

Actually, we knew that already.

But yesterday's speech from the throne, haltingly read by an obviously frail Lieutenant-Governor Donald Ethell, provides insight into how they intend to do it.

The plan, clearly, is to propose only policies that are driven by talking points -- not the other way around as you might imagine. Those talking points, in turn, are drafted only to cancel out positions and strategies that have proved effective for the Opposition.

This is tried and true stuff for Alberta Tories, and it's quite evident that Prentice -- who took his recently won seat in the Legislature for the first time today, along with his new by-election caucus-mates Health Minister Stephen "Menthol" Mandel, Education Minister Gordon Dirks, and MLA Mike Ellis -- is quite good at it.

Actual Tory legislative agendas, of course, are not normally discussed in throne speeches, but are a part of policy continuum formulated behind closed doors, far from the prying eyes and prickling ears of annoying members of the public.

So Alberta Conservative governments are always at their best -- from their perspective, that is, and their most successful from the point of view of the rest of us -- when they are able to meet two essential criteria:

1)    They are boring, that is to say, everything that matters is flying under the radar

2)    They are confident, that is, they don't even acknowledge the Opposition exists, let alone that it might have any good ideas

This is where the governments of premiers Ed Stelmach and Alison Redford went off the rails. Under Redford in particular, a day never passed that was not extremely interesting, and everything her government did indicated that not only was the Opposition a major player in the politics of the province, but it often had better ideas than the government.

No more! Order is restored. God is back in His heaven and all's Right with the world, this oily little corner of it, anyway.

The main differences between Prentice's government and past Tory governments are, first, that in the Wildrose Party it faces arguably the first opposition party significantly to the right of the PCs since the Social Credit party blew apart in 1975. (There are those who would argue the Liberal Party of Laurence Decore was too, but that view is open to honest debate.)

And, second, that Prentice is the first premier since the Wildrose Party arrived on the scene who realizes the same disdainful treatment successfully dished out to the Liberals and NDP by Peter Lougheed and Ralph Klein, even if Don Getty didn't quite manage the trick, would work just as well on the right side of the political spectrum.

Neither Stelmach nor Redford ever seemed to get that.

Actual policies in Prentice's cautious throne speech? Ah, gee, we're going to have to  do something about that oil-price-driven budget roller-coaster, aren't we? (No actual solutions proposed just yet.) And lots of new schools. (No word on what happens inside them.) Plus we'll have the most pipelines and be the most environmentally responsible jurisdiction on God's Green Earth. (Again, no explanatory details.) Health care? It will get better. (Also no details.)

Oh yeah, no sales tax, careful hints of privatization and a "volunteerism agenda" -- say hello, Alberta, to the Wild Rose Country version of The Big Society! (Details likewise to follow.)

All that we’ve seen in detail so far is Bill 1, Prentice's terse (approximately 450-word) assault on the Wildrose Party's most effective issue, the property rights of well-off farmers when they are in conflict with even richer corporations. (Don't imagine any of this property rights stuff has much relevance to rank and file voters, especially the ones that live in cities, whatever some of them may think.)

Bill 1, introduced right after the throne speech, will become upon passage the grandly titled Respecting Property Rights Act and repeal the Stelmach Government's Land Assembly Project Area Act, which was wildly unpopular with farmers, effortlessly pulling wind from the Wildrose Party's sails.

Prentice called the bill "the beginning of the process," which may or may not be enough to defuse Wildrose calls for changes to a couple of other Stelmach-era property expropriation laws, leaving the door open to doing only as much as is absolutely necessary.

Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith's lame effort to keep the issue alive was to call for a motion by the Legislature to demand the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms be amended to enshrine U.S.-style property rights, which is to say corporate rights, in the Constitution. Well, good luck with that! Who knows, she may even be Opposition leader long enough to take it up with another Trudeau Government in Ottawa.

Meanwhile, Prentice's dull and confident approach has worked for past Tory governments, so why not for for his?

If yesterday's throne speech shows the need for anything, it's for an Opposition that's not made up of people who share identical ideology, policy goals and social attitudes to the people in power.

That way at least, the government's responses might move the province ever so slightly in the right direction, which is to say, ever so slightly in the left direction.

Well, I don't suppose we ought to hold our breaths waiting for that to happen, any more than Smith should expect to see her constitutional pipedream come true.

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

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