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Terrible optics: Connecting the dots to Jim Prentice's sweet little T-Bird

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1956 Ford Thunderbird

On its own, the story about Premier Jim Prentice’s $59,400 classic car auction payout in Arizona, at the tail end of a government business trip to Texas, is not much more than a curiosity worthy of a chuckle or two about how some people just don't seem to get the obvious.

Yes, the optics seem terrible at a time when Albertans are being told they'll have to tighten their belts because of the plummeting price of oil, all the more so if you ask me when it's revealed our One Percenter premier bought the white and baby blue '56 T-Bird as an eventual gift to his grandson.

The furious insistence of the premier's supporters that he should be able to spend his banking bazillions as he wishes -- notwithstanding the kid-glove treatment the story got from the media -- tells me they know in their hearts it won't pass the sniff test with most Albertans, even though, of course, he used his own money.

For his part, presumably, the premier is thinking: "What? What?"

Not that this will matter very much, seeing as Prentice has successfully decimated the Opposition with his notoriously successful raid on the Wildrose benches last month. We are left to imagine wistfully what Danielle Smith would have done with such an opportunity were she still the Opposition leader.

But this example of the premier's occasional cognitive dissonance about how such things are likely to be seen is part of a larger pattern, and the dots deserve to be connected, if not for Albertans, then for the rest of Canada.

We were told when Prentice came aboard as Progressive Conservative premier after the appalling Alison Redford episode that the province was "under new management." It appeared that God was again in his heaven and all was right with the world. Most of the Wildrose Opposition certainly accepted that argument -- or, at least, were instructed by someone to do so.

And yet, if you were looking for evidence that the same old arrogant and entitled ways persisted, Prentice's sneaky departure from Texas for Arizona (his itinerary was written in a manner that gave the impression he was heading home, without actually saying he was) and his apparent assumption no one would pay attention to what he was doing there, is all you need.

In a symbolic way, what the T-Bird episode and the reaction to it illustrate is that optics don't really matter in Alberta because we barely have a functioning democracy here. We haven't had a change in government for 43 years, despite far more striking evidence than this small episode that the PCs Prentice now leads haven't really been up to the job for the past three decades.

Both the managerial incompetence typical of generations of Tory provincial governments and the premier's insensitivity to the optics of democracy are made more likely by a petroleum fuelled economy that generates huge amounts of cash for some people but is subject to the brutal whims of the market.

In such circumstances, something as obvious as not asking citizens to make sacrifices for the common good the same week you publicly buy extravagant luxuries barely registers with the buyers as inappropriate, or even mildly incongruous.

Meanwhile, we have a federal government dominated by Alberta Conservatives whose apparent plan is to turn the entire Canadian economy into an oil-dependent  replica of Alberta's.

This is bad for people in Central and Eastern Canada who depended on a healthy manufacturing sector for their livelihoods, but it's good for the federal government's friends in the oil industry back home in Calgary.

"Dutch Disease" in Canada? The diagnosis was pretty well confirmed last fall when even the Bank of America proclaimed that Alberta's petroleum and its effects on the Looney were hurting the rest of the economy, never mind the federal Conservatives’ fury when NDP Opposition Leader Thomas Mulcair dared to suggest the same thing a few months before.

Now Prentice is busy trying to sell Canadians the bill of goods that the decline in the price fetched by oil and its resulting downward pressure on the Canadian dollar is a problem for everyone in the country.

Well, maybe. That would depend on how far Harper's destructive plans have progressed. "Free" trade and Conservative petro-policies have pretty well laid waste to Ontario's manufacturing sector, and it'll take more than a few weeks of cheap gas and a low Canadian dollar to return it to viability.

Indeed, Statistics Canada reported yesterday that the slide in Canadian manufacturing continues, thanks in significant part to the pumped-up petro-dollar Prentice and Harper so desperately want to preserve.

"Manufacturing sales declined 1.4 per cent in November to $51.5 billion, reflecting lower sales of motor vehicles, chemicals, primary metals and food," the federal statistics agency and Conservative bête noir reported. "This was the third decrease in four months." Sales declined in 16 of 21 industries, Statscan noted, explaining this represented more than 80 per cent of total Canadian manufacturing.

Under such circumstances, Prentice's bleat to the Rest of Canada that they'd better get in line with Alberta's need to pump oil and pump the currency seems a bit rich. Suddenly all of Canada has a big problem because the government of Alberta, of all places, hasn't figured out that commodity prices go up and down, and has proved to be completely incapable of planning for such an eventuality?

Harper's government is in such a panic, meanwhile, that they've delayed their election budget for a couple of months in hopes oil prices will rise enough to let them claim there's a surplus in spite of their costly and discriminatory income-splitting scheme. Heaven only knows what they'll do if that doesn't work out!

If something doesn't happen soon, they surely fear, their whole dream of turning the country into a Thatcherite dystopia using Alberta-style taxes to justify public service cuts, all financed by the cash flow from petroleum, then running the place for the next 43 years or so, could be blown to smithereens!

If they succeed, of course, they can buy T-Birds and Rolexes for their grandkids to their hearts' content while they tell the other 99 per cent of us to settle down in the barber's chair for the inevitable series of lousy haircuts to which there is no alternative.

No one will even raise an eyebrow.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

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