THE BLOG

Alberta: Government by Trial Balloon

01/29/2015 02:02 EST | Updated 03/31/2015 05:59 EDT
lmd/The Canadian Press
Jim Prentice, Environment Minister and Minister Responsible for Parks Canada, during a press conference to unveil the new North American Avalanche Danger Scale in Calgary, Alberta on Wednesday March 17, 2010. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Larry MacDougal

"The chickens are coming home to roost, and you live in the chicken house."- General MacArthur to President Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Mr. Prentice, like President Kennedy, managed to get elected just in time to confront the nasty consequences of decisions made by his predecessors.

Albertans are staring down the barrel (gun, not oil) of an $18 billion deficit over the next three years. For a government that bills itself as "fiscally conservative," this is an unmitigated disaster.

Polls and trial balloons

In difficult times, most politicians commission polls and launch trial balloons.

John F. Kennedy was not one of those politicians. He didn't commission any polls during his presidency, preferring to incorporate the results of others' polls with his own observations, research and political intuition and make his own decisions, for which he remained solely accountable.

Sadly, that's not the case in Alberta.

Under Mr. Prentice we're faced a barrage of trial balloons, flying like flak in the London Blitz, as he tries to determine which way the political wind is blowing. He's tested everything from ignoring the set election date to introducing a sales tax.

Mainstreet Poll

This brings us to the Mainstreet Technologies poll that was recently "provided to" the Calgary Herald. Provided to...? Did it just slide in under the door?

Mainstreet conducted an automated telephone poll of 3,184 Albertans to determine what sorts of revenue generating mechanisms they'd accept in order to balance the budget (currently $7 billion short).

The overwhelming consensus (43%) was that government should cut spending. Raising taxes (15%), running a bigger deficit (11%) and increasing borrowing (9%) trailed far behind.

A provincial sales tax, floated by the Premier with the caveat that Albertans don't like it but he's "prepared to be educated and hear from the people" (which "people" is not entirely clear) was supported by only 9% of those surveyed.

The Calgary Herald says, "This threatens to forcefully prick Prentice's trial balloon."

Let's pause for a moment to consider the implications of that statement.

Trial balloons

The term "trial balloon" was coined in 1782 when the Montgolfière brothers invented the Montgolfière globe aérostatique (hot air balloon). Not being complete idiots they weren't about to risk life and limb without first determining whether man could survive 400 meters in the air. So they sent aloft a sheep, a duck and a rooster. (The king suggested they launch two criminals but was talked out of it). The farm animals returned safely to earth and Étienne Montgolfière became the first human to sail into the wild blue yonder.

Politicians use trial balloons for the same reason. They're not about to risk their political capital on a policy position that might turn around and bite them. If public reaction is negative, they can walk away unscathed.

Politicians lacking vision (like Mr. Prentice) launch trial balloons left, right and centre in the hope that somewhere along the line they'll get it right. This demonstrates a lack of conviction in the party's platform or a lack of confidence in the government's ability to explain difficult issues to the electorate.

So we can expect Mr. Prentice to respond to Alberta's financial crisis by cobbling together a "mandate" based on whatever is least offensive to the public, and "testing" this mandate by calling a snap election.

The "mandate" will bear no resemblance to PC party policy unless Mr. Prentice holds a policy convention to ratify it. Don't hold your breath.

Politicians blessed with vision make significant policy decisions without test driving them first.

Peter Lougheed was such a politician. Shortly after he was elected, he shocked Big Oil by boosting royalty revenues from 17% to 40%. His decision was consistent with his belief that Albertans own their natural resources and should be properly compensated for them. He added $10 billion a year to the provincial treasury.

Prentice's priorities

Now wait. Isn't this a little harsh? Wasn't Mr. Prentice working hard on other things when he was blindsided by the drop in oil prices?

Here are the five priorities he set out in the Throne Speech; you tell me:

1. A focused commitment to sound conservative principles: So far it's been trial balloons and veiled threats against the public sector.

2. Ending entitlement and restoring public trust: He appointed a governance committee to review four of the 200 agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) but flip flopped on whether he'll publish salaries paid to ABCs' staff who manage two-thirds of the budget.

3. Maximizing the value of our natural resources and respecting property rights: He visited oil companies in Houston, picked up a T-bird on his way home and plans to visit Washington later this month. He passed Bill 1 which repealed one offensive property law but leaves six equally offensive laws on the books.

4. Establishing Alberta as an environmental leader: The carbon levy is delayed...again.

5. Enhancing Alberta's quality of life: Hundreds of schools and hospitals were announced, then postponed because oil prices took a nose dive.

Not much progress; so what has he been doing?

Power

Mr. Prentice spent the fall of 2014 consolidating power by eviscerating the Wildrose opposition. He'll spend the spring of 2015 (the Legislature doesn't reconvene until March 10, 2015) ensuring everything is in place for a snap election.

And he's busy distracting the public by launching trial balloons to get a fix on the political slogans that will best capture the attention of the 40% of the population who are not too fed up to vote.

Frankly, I'd rather see him send up a sheep, a duck and a rooster. That would be equally unproductive but a whole lot more entertaining.