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Jim Prentice seems like a guy looking for a parade to get in front of, so he can say he's the leader

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Jim Prentice

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice keeps floating trial balloons about new ways to cut government spending, and then backing away the instant someone pops 'em.

I don't know about you, but to me every day Prentice looks a little more like a guy looking for a parade to get in front of, so he can say he's the leader. The trouble is, right now the crowd's just milling around.

No matter what Albertans have been told, that's not leadership. It's not even management. It's just evidence of confusion. Wasn't Prentice supposed to be the guy with all the answers?

Our Progressive Conservative saviour-premier's problem seems to be that no one's very enthusiastic about the slick ideas he comes up with every morning, which may be why he drops so many of them by the afternoon.

But it's doubtful he'll implement the ideas that actually seem to have a little traction with ordinary voters -- fair resource royalties and progressive taxation instead of the increasingly discredited "flat tax," which actually tilts the playing field against the middle classes. I think we all know the reason for that.

Yesterday morning, we started the day with a pain-sharing plan to return us all to paying health care premiums -- $528 a year for an individual, $1,056 for a family --  through an income tax check-off.

I thought this was pretty clever, even if it was a terrible idea. As Calgary Herald political columnist Don Braid explained it, the way Finance Minister Robin Campbell, the former trade union local president, has been describing the balloon floated by the premier meant that "companies wouldn't contribute all or part of the premium for employees, as many did before. And the government would not foot the bill for its own employees, a practice that used to skim off a big chunk of the take."

Prentice and his finance minister had turned the idea of everyone sharing the pain into justification for another subsidy for big business!

As Braid observed: "For many people without benefits provided by big companies, the premium was a serious burden until 2009. It will be again in 2015, for more people." (Emphasis added.)

By afternoon, though, the premier had characteristically cooled to this plan -- apparently because the boys at the Chamber of Commerce where he gives his "State of the Province Speeches" had decided they didn't particularly like it.

Ken Kobly, president of the Alberta Chambers of Commerce, grumbled that it sounded like a tax increase to him, and might cost businesses, and pretty soon Prentice was pedalling backward, calling Campbell's commentary the day before nothing more than "a concept."

Well, at his news conference Wednesday on the shores of Chestermere Slough east of Calgary, Campbell did sound like a man who didn't quite understand the lines his boss had just handed him. "It will be based on per person. I'm just not sure yet how we'll bring it in," he mumbled.

Now Campbell may be off the hook about having to come up with an explanation. Who would have thought, the premier must be musing, that premier Ed Stelmach's 2009 idea of taking away the highly regressive health care premiums would have turned out to be popular? (Mr. Stelmach, for those of you who have already forgotten, was the last truly progressive Conservative premier of Alberta and a Tory who looks better by the day.)

Meanwhile, there was the clever FOI-suppression tactic announced by the government yesterday, to the immediate grief of the few journalists who still break stories in Alberta.

The PC government of Premiers Getty-through-Prentice has so many secrets that reporters like the CBC's Charles Rusnell have made a cottage industry of doing targeted freedom-of-information requests that have repeatedly embarrassed the government.

To prevent Rusnell from dragging the Tories down one freedom-of-information request at a time, we are told Prentice personally amended the rules so documents from all general FOI requests will be posted on the Internet every week.

The new FOI policy -- drawn up without consulting the province's information commissioner -- gives the impression of more transparency while actually making things more opaque.

That's because the government knows there will be less incentive for the few media outfits in Alberta that still do honest-to-gosh investigative journalism if the FOI searches they have paid for can be read in the government's weekly data dump by sluggos from Postmedia papers, who are already notorious in journalistic circles for reprinting the CBC's stories without credit.

As the CBC explained in a news story: "The new policy would effectively eliminate scoops and undermine long-term investigations."

The government's goal, obviously, is to ensure the bean counters at the CBC put a stop to Rusnell's activities on the grounds the expense can no longer be justified.

However, it's said here that this idea's chances of long-term survival are not that good either. For starters, it's unlikely to work as well as Prentice imagines.

It won't deter opposition parties as much as the media, especially if the NDP no longer feels the need to compete with the Alberta Liberals for Question Period scoops. After all, with former Alberta Liberal leader Raj Sherman now in charge of the Liberals' re-election campaign and most of its MLAs abandoning ship, that hardly bodes well for the survival of a Liberal caucus in the Legislature.

I'm betting New Democrats and what's left of the Wildrose legislative rump can work out some kind of accommodation to keep a stream of revelations flowing.

Plus, the scheme ignores another aspect of the character of the media in Alberta, its powerful herd instinct. The loss of scoops may keep some media companies from filing FOIs, but if public-spirited citizen organizations do their part, file the requests and announce when they're expected in a well-written news release, the media will pile on in a feeding frenzy.

So the government will soon realize this will make things worse from its perspective, not better.

Well, budget day is approaching and Prentice is going to have to come up with something. What do you want to bet he plumps for the hardy perennial of destructive Ralph-Klein-style cuts, attacks on public employees and a quick election before Albertans realize they've been had again.

With most of the opposition safely tucked away in the government benches, it should work out well enough for the premier despite his apparent inability to locate the front end of the parade.

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

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