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What really matters to the Prentice Government? Market fundamentalism is pivotal, social conservatism is not

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Laurie Blakeman

The unavoidable conclusion after the Alberta Legislature's first day back in business is that market fundamentalism is a far higher priority to the government of Premier Jim Prentice than the social conservative variety.

This is not particularly surprising, but it is a useful insight nevertheless.

Albertans observed the same pattern with the brief and coruscating arc described through the heavens by the government of former Premier Alison Redford. We have seen it with the federal government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper too.

To wit: social conservatism matters to so-called conservative governments as a rich vein of effective wedge issues, but social conservatives shouldn't let their hopes get very high that anyone among the market fundamentalists who lead the governments they elect really cares very much about their enthusiasms.

So, yesterday, Day 1 of the Spring Sitting of the Third Session of the 28th Legislature of Alberta, saw the complete abandonment by the Prentice Government of its efforts to balance the passionate convictions of social conservatives and the liberal views of the majority of Albertans on the topic of gay-straight alliances in schools.

The amended version of Bill 10 brought back by the government was the same on the formerly controversial key issue -- that publicly financed schools must allow students to form GSAs if they feel the need, whether or not the principal or the school board approves -- as the private member's bill it was designed to block, which was introduced by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman in the Legislature last year.

This, as the Edmonton Journal put it yesterday afternoon, "was a 180-degree reversal from the Tory government's previous position" in the fall, when the original version of the bill gave schools the ability to refuse GSAs the right to meet on school property. Elsewhere, the paper called it "a stunning about-face."

The point was conceded by Education Minister Gordon Dirks himself, who is known to harbour strong social conservative views, and it would be interesting to know how this was received by so-con Wildrose turncoats like rural MLA Ian Donovan, who crossed the floor early at least in part because he found former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith too squishily liberal on the same issue.

Oh well, politics makes strange bedfellows, as they say.

As for Ms. Blakeman, she was emotional. “It’s hard to contain my joy,” she told reporters.

Notwithstanding its surrender on Bill 10, on matters of economic fundamentalism, the government showed less give.

Leastways, there was no way Prentice was going to say sorry for telling Albertans last week they should "look in the mirror" to find the culprit behind the province's current budgeting difficulties.

The thing is, regardless of how the citizenry reacted to his explicit mirror crack, Prentice was staying firmly inside his message box with the narrative that it’s us, wanting too much for too little, and not PC mismanagement of tax and royalty revenues, that make the pain of austerity measures a necessary prescription for Alberta.

So the premier bobbed and weaved and avoided the obvious during Question Period yesterday, just as he was doing when he got into trouble in the first place on the CBC last Wednesday.

The economic narrative that Prentice is pushing -- a key part of which is that the province's problems are really our fault, not his government's -- is important enough to the PC party's bankrollers to spend some political capital defending.

It's a small but significant irony that Prentice’s troublesome moment with the mirror came about because he was trying to avoid another topic: Alberta's need for a fairer and more sensible tax regime.

In the classic fashion of politicians everywhere, he was trying to ignore the question posed by a listener by answering a different question of his own devising. Rather than address what ought to be done about the financial problem (that's already been decided, my friends) he wanted to talk about who is responsible (not him).

The last thing in the world Prentice wished to start discussing last Wednesday was how our tax and royalty regimes are so far behind the rest of the country that we could raise $11 billion more through income taxes alone and still have the lowest taxes in Canada.

And the last thing he was going to do yesterday was apologize for that.

As Susan Wright explained in her excellent Susan on the Soapbox blog last weekend: "Mr. Prentice will not apologize. He thinks our outrage is a joke."

His performance in the Legislature yesterday suggests that this analysis is substantially right, even if the premier doesn’t think it’s funny.

As Wright rightly argued, the Prentice Government seriously misjudged Albertans when it thought they'd put "parental rights" ahead of human rights and it similarly misjudged them when it concluded they'd buy the tale that Tory mismanagement was their fault.

The difference, as Prentice showed in the Legislature yesterday, is that the former isn't really a very important part of his government's program. The latter is pivotal.

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

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