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Happy Canada Day: Alberta has an extra billion, which was good luck for the NDP

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Joe Ceci

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Presumably it will be a Happy Canada Day today for Alberta Premier Rachel Notley with the news now out there the province has a billion dollars more in its kitty than we'd been led to believe in the final days of Progressive Conservative dynasty.

As NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci said of the Government of Alberta annual report published yesterday, the extra billion sure isn't going to hurt, although we will have to wait for the government’s next budget in the fall to see how this will all actually play out.

By the tone of Ceci’s remarks to the media, notwithstanding the windfall, he is not all much more optimistic about the province's mid-term financial future than was PC finance minister Robin Campbell before the vote. Expectations management, I suppose. So no one should count on the NDP turning away from its plans to find new ways to raise revenue that don’t involve praying for higher petroleum prices.

In recent years under the PCs, the province used two different bookkeeping systems, which resulted in different numbers for the same thing, so everyone seemed confused yesterday as to how much unexpected cash is actually lying around. The conventional wisdom seemed to be about $1.1 million. Regardless, this suggested the old saw is right, that the purpose of accounting is not to enlighten, especially when the books are cooked up by Tories.

Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt demanded that the government produce a budget a month or two earlier than it plans, which just seemed like an effort to be heard saying something.

PC leader Ric McIver tried to argue the extra dough is the result of good Tory management, a story that could have had legs if the previous government hadn't been so busy trying to hide the good news when it might have helped it. Presumably it did this to help persuade us all there was no alternative but another sour dose of austerity.

The Tories under the hapless Jim Prentice, then the party's great hope for salvation, must have imagined they could do whatever they pleased because they just couldn't lose. Well, it was Notley's good fortune, and perhaps the province’s too, that the electorate had other ideas.

At any rate, the Tory nest egg, which had to be reported yesterday because a couple of pieces of Tory legislation, nevertheless became the NDP's good news story. If nothing else, this proves that timing is everything.

We can argue about whether May’s NDP victory in Alberta was the result of an insightful strategist making her own good fortune or, as Norman Mailer put it, "a random play of vulgar good luck." Perhaps it was a bit of each.

But either way, the timing of the discovery was also fortunate for the NDP in light of the joint effort yesterday by the Wildrose Party and loony-right commentator Ezra Levant to publicize old court documents showing the environment minister's new chief of staff was convicted of a violent assault at a high school party more than 20 years ago.

Notwithstanding the fact Brent Dancey was only 18 at the time of his conviction, and later seems to have been pardoned, not to mention the Wildrose Party's tendentious effort to tie the circumstances to violence against women, although there was no connection, this revelation nevertheless caused a ripple of unease in die-hard Alberta Dipper circles.

There has been some quiet grumbling about the number of candidates from outside Alberta who have been hired for senior political staff positions when there are many qualified Albertans who bleed orange. As blogger Dave Cournoyer observed and as premiers Alison Redford and Jim Prentice seemed to prove, "filling senior political jobs with outsiders who may not be familiar with the provincial political environment can alienate party loyalists and MLAs and lead to embarrassing mistakes."

At the very least, the easy-to-discover revelation about Dancey suggests to the grumblers the government's vetting process left something to be desired. If nothing else, that needs to be fixed.

Also yesterday, in the hours leading up to today's holiday, the government announced Carl Amrhein will become deputy minister of the province's most expensive and troubled ministry. Amrhein has been serving temporarily as the official administrator of Alberta Health Services in lieu of the independent board fired by Tory health minister Fred Horne two years ago for acting too independently.

Amrhein, a former provost of the University of Alberta with a reputation as an administrative tough guy, will take over as DM in August, replacing Janet Davidson, Alberta’s highest-paid civil servant and a former health care consultant recruited by Horne.

What Amrhein is paid is bound to be of some interest in light of Davidson's controversial package of salary and benefits, worth about $644,000 a year to the Vancouver Island resident.

Amrhein’s appointment was part of a shuffle of deputy ministers, mostly non-political professional civil service managers with low profiles, that saw former University of Alberta law dean Philip Bryden appointed DM of Justice, and Tim Grant, the former Justice DM, shuffled out to Service Alberta.

While the Service Alberta appointment for the former major general seems like a clear demotion, if not exactly the equivalent of being busted back to buck private, Grant's continued presence as a senior official in any ministry will cause no joy at the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees.

In 2013, after an illegal strike by jail guards, the union's president accused Grant of "threatening a hard-won labour peace with taunting, threats and other goading behaviour on the Edmonton Remand Centre worksite, only the day after a promise was made to protect members from retaliation for strike activity."

Grant's continued central role under an NDP government appears to have come as an unpleasant and complete surprise to leaders of the province's largest union, which represents approximately 22,000 of Alberta's civil servants.

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

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