Alison Redford

Here in 14 words is the conundrum that faces the Progressive Conservative government of Alberta Premier Alison Redford: you can be progressive, or you can be conservative, but you can’t be both.

So which is it?

The problem that confronts Redford’s PCs is that they aren’t really sure themselves.

Progressive? Or Conservative? Great taste? Or less filling? Breath mint? Or candy mint?

This, it is said here, is the source of the real pain that shows through the Redford Government’s commentary about how we all need to reduce our expectations for the provincial budget scheduled for introduction on Thursday, March 7.

Yeah, I know, Alberta Tories have a long history of saying things are going to be terrible come budget time, then laughing at us behind their hands when we all heave a huge sigh of relief after things turn out not to be as quite as bad as forecast.

That’s a perfectly plausible explanation for much of the gloom and doom about declining petroleum revenues that is emanating from Redford’s inner circle nowadays.

It’s also true that Redford probably promised more than she could sensibly deliver in the desperate final days of the 2012 election campaign, when it looked very much as if the ultra-conservative Wildrose Party might actually win a majority. That was when she told Albertans that thanks to a heaping dosage of political Retsyn ™ her party could be a breath mint and a candy mint!

But neither of those cynical explanations account for the level of genuine angst apparent in the Red Tory Budget Blues that are playing continually in Alberta these days.

After her first 2013 meeting with her PC caucus, Redford warned that falling petroleum prices — which with metronomic regularity catch Alberta PC governments by complete surprise — mean tough choices, deep cuts, reduced expectations, haircuts all ’round, programs under the microscope, tighter belts, (insert spending-cut metaphor of choice here), yadda yadda.

Finance Minister Doug Horner has also joined this chorus of Gloomy Thursday, a tune so melancholy many listeners that hear it are immediately tempted to jump off a fiscal cliff!

But their real problem is that old habits die hard. The Alberta PCs have been a party of deep fiscal conservatism and knee-jerk austerity for so long that the instinct to cut in a crisis is bred in the bone.

Like a Civil War surgeon presented with a health care problem, the only thing they can think of is a hacksaw and a broom handle for the patient to bite down on while they cut. So they can’t help telling us that if you think that image is painful, just wait for the Budget Speech on March 7 — and they mean it!

After all, that strategy has worked for years for the Alberta Tories, at least once the quasi-NDP government of their founder, Peter Lougheed, came to an end in the mid-80s just as the neoconservative verities of Ronald Reagan, the Fraser Institute and General Augusto Pinochet began to really take root around the globe.

Many believers in that worldview remain influential in Tory ranks.

The trouble is, in the Alberta of the early 21st Century, that territory has been ceded to the Wildrose Party led by former Fraser Institute apparatchik Danielle Smith and abetted by the unprogressive federal Conservatives of Prime Minister Stephen Harper who campaigned tirelessly for the Wildrosers last spring.

And those voters, it now seems clear, are not coming back. To them, Redford is beyond the political pale, and nothing she says or does will assuage their bitterness at her defeat of former finance minister Ted Morton, the worst premier Alberta never had, and her rejection, however temporary, of their Paleolithic values.

Faced with the grim prospect of defeat at the hands of these unreconstituted market fundamentalists and social conservatives, Redford’s strategists did a clever and rather courageous thing — on very short notice they cobbled together a new coalition with small-l liberal supporters of the Alberta New Democrats, Liberals and Alberta Party who preferred a soft Tory government to a hard-edged Wildrose premier. If that meant fewer seats for the parties they traditionally supported, well, the Devil take the hindmost!

The Redford Tories built this instant coalition by promising things that were traditionally anathema to many of their party’s core supporters: public services, investment in health care and education, commitment to inclusive values.

Now, facing a temporary decline in resource revenues, their deepest instinct is to backslide — just when what the situation calls for is a modest tax increase, a recommitment to small-l liberal values, a willingness to live with deficits a little longer and the courage to stay the course on health, education and social spending.

If they respond to their the primitive instincts of their political lizard brain, they will likely lose the new and still fragile coalition that saved their bacon in 2012, but they won’t win back the right-wing rump they have already lost to the Wildrose Party.

So reason tells them to stay the course. But passion tells them to abandon it. The resulting pain they feel is real.

To paraphrase the breath mint ad of yore: They kissed us once. Will they kiss us again? Alas, in Alberta right now, there’s no way to be certain until March 7.

Right now, they don’t even know themselves!

This post also appears on David Climenhaga’s blog, Alberta Diary.

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...