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'Real leader' Brad Wall's government feeds the fluctuations of a boom-bust economy as Alberta stays the course

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Brad Wall

What a pleasure it is here in the nation's capital to be the one from the only province on the Prairies where grownups are still in charge!

I speak, of course, of Alberta -- but I speak of my home province in the context of the goings on in Saskatchewan earlier today, where the premier according to the best-known candidate to lead Alberta's Progressive Conservative Party is "the real leader of Western Canada."

The speaker of that line was Jason Kenney, former Harper Government cabinet minister who wants to save the PC Party by destroying it. The "real leader" is Brad Wall, the bilious Saskatchewan premier who has been coasting along quite popularly for years financing low taxes and expensive market-fundamentalist nostrums with the returns from sky-high oil prices.

And, just today, the real leader's government indirectly told its government employees that they'll have to come up with the cash to help deal with his government's mismanagement, caused fundamentally by its failure to notice the obvious fact that the market for petroleum is a volatile one, and oil prices have accordingly turned south.

Or, to put that the way the Saskatchewan Party Deputy Premier Don Morgan explained in letters to 41 public sector employer groups, there's no more money, so public sector trade unions representing about 64,000 workers must immediately reopen their contracts, accept big wage rollbacks or, as the Regina Leader Post warned, "potentially face big layoffs."

As reported by local media, Saskatchewan Finance Minister Kevin Doherty denied the government is threatening its employees. However, he said, if they won't listen up, "then you take a look at what some other options might be, and one of those options is layoffs." (Emphasis added.)

When you do this, not only are you scapegoating all public sector employees, students and sick people to pay for the conservative government's serial mismanagement, as Saskatchewan Federation of Labour President Larry Hubich put it in an interview with the CBC, you are making the economy worse as many households already hit hard by the problems in the oilpatch lose their only remaining wage earner.

All Saskatchewan's dear leader is doing, Hubich observed, is "looking for someone to beat up on and it happens to be their own employees, so they can continue with the narrative that the real problem in Saskatchewan isn't that they're incompetent, it's that it's everybody else's fault."

We Albertans have seen this movie before, of course, when Ralph Klein was the premier of our province. So we know how it ends: The public employees take the rollbacks, then suffer massive layoffs anyway. The economy doesn't get any better until cyclical changes elsewhere take their course.

Klein's acolytes in Alberta have been screaming for a return to the same thing ever since -- first at Ed Stelmach, who tried to move the provincial PCs toward the centre and was rewarded by Albertans with a majority government, and more recently at Rachel Notley, the NDP premier who campaigned successfully against Alison Redford, placeholder Dave Hancock and Jim Prentice after Stelmach quit in disgust over the abuse he was taking for being a competent manager.

It's that same richly schizoid Western Canadian conservative tradition of alternatively screaming "We're the richest, best managed place on earth! No we're not! We're the poorest, most wretched place on earth! It's not our fault! No we're not...” (Repeat ad nauseam.)

We know about this because we put up with it for most of the 80 years before the NDP won a majority government in May 2015 -- with short exceptions during the Peter Lougheed and Stelmach governments.

Alberta conservatives apparently want more of the same. They've been demanding for months that Alberta get back on the destructive old boom-bust track as quickly as possible. So Kenney's praise for Wall, who is doing just that next door, is hardly unique.

By contrast, the NDP government here in Alberta has met the same oil-price crisis with a commitment to protect health care services, public education and basic government services while building the social license required to get Alberta's resource industry back on track -- which clearly appears to be working. The NDP is also making a genuine if quixotic effort to diversify the economy to ensure the impact of inevitable oil and gas price fluctuations is not so devastating.

In other words, they are behaving like grownups...like actual stewards of the economy.

Not Saskatchewan. And not Manitoba either, which last year elected a Conservative government and already appears to be heading down the same garden path.

Meanwhile, it was revealed by the federal government today that Wall's government had cut a side deal with Ottawa on health care funding, allowing further fragmentation of the national health care system and making it more difficult for provinces like Alberta to negotiate the agreement all Canadians deserve.

Despite the fact they ease the province's burden, the additional health care funds just agreed to will have no impact on the Saskatchewan Party Government's efforts to bully the province's health care workers.

Because, when it comes to fiscal planning in conservative Western Canadian provinces, all we have to fall back on is the notion the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. Repeatedly.

Thus endeth the lesson.

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

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Image: Wikimedia Commons/DanielPaquet

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