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Prentice Government takes Alberta from boom to bust in one weekend, breaking all records

Guess what, we're broke again out here in The Richest Place on Earth!

Yesterday, citing the spectacular recent drop in oil prices, Alberta Premier Jim Prentice pulled his Grim Reaper's hood over his head, took up his scythe and headed out to, in the words of his government's press release, "take action to control spending."

Target No. 1 of his newly formed seven-minister "Budget 2015 committee," according to the press release: "Public sector compensation."

Prentice, Finance Minister and former trade unionist Robin Campbell, Health Minister Stephen Mandel, Municipal Affairs Minister Diana McQueen, Energy Minister Frank Oberle, Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar and Labour Minister Ric McIver will be sharpening their metaphorical knives and trying to figure out ways to enact disgraced former premier Alison Redford's policies without sounding like they're implementing Ms. Redford's policies, I guess.

What Prentice thinks this means for the "blue-ribbon" committee of boardroom bigshots he cheerfully announced on Friday to improve the flagging morale and "shockingly" high turnover in the Alberta civil service is not immediately clear.

If I were any of the four execs so optimistically named by the premier just one business day earlier, I think I’d say thanks very much but I'll stay home and paint the baseboards. After all, there's nothing for them to do now except look foolish, thanks to the upcoming efforts of the Seven Horsepersons of the Alberta Fiscal Apocalypse (SHAFA).

Even by Alberta's ridiculous recent standards, going from boom to bust in one weekend has to be something of an accomplishment!

Notwithstanding yesterday's grim talk, Albertans need not worry overmuch. Soon enough we'll all be rich again, here in the brokest place on earth.

That's because we don't just have a boom-and-bust resource-based economy hereabouts. We've got a boom-and-bust government. Indeed, we've had one for most of the past half century. Prentice is just the latest figurehead at the helm.

Critics often say this is because the Progressive Conservative government is fat, profligate, entitled and above all incompetent. There's enough truth to that to make it dangerous, although you ought not to hold your breath waiting for Alberta voters to catch on. Their tendency not to do so, of course, is what Prentice is counting on.

But the real issue is because this boom-to-bust-and-back cycle works for the government.

Thanks to our junkie-like resource dependency, based on too-low royalties used to underwrite our unprogressive tax system, we flit from crisis to complacency and back with a tick in the price of a barrel of oil, from prosperity to panic at the whim of a currency trader's keyboard. The last few weeks provide just one more example.

But the province's wealthiest citizens and the energy industry -- in possession of a bigger picture than the rest of us -- are happy enough right now to keep cash flowing into PC Party coffers.

That wasn't necessarily the case back when Ed Stelmach was the Progressive Conservative premier and made a half-hearted attempt to squeeze a little more value for Albertans out of our non-renewable resources. Some energy companies were not remotely happy, and, arguably, that led directly to the formation and rise of the Wildrose Party, Danielle Smith Edition.

Now, under Prentice, the energy industry can expect to get everything it wants and, unsurprisingly, the Wildrose Party seems to have fallen on hard times. Such hard times, indeed, that rumours are circulating the Wildrose caucus is about to merge back into the PCs.

If you want to start cutting public services, as a neoliberal party like the PCs on principle wants to do, it's quite handy if there’s always another financial crisis right around the corner to assist the process. There's just nothing like a crisis to justify the application of a little economic shock therapy, no matter how ineffective or unwarranted.

That, it is said here, is the fundamental reason for the past few years the economic news in Alberta always reads like the opening of a Charles Dickens novel: "…It was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way."

In 1987, we were so unexpectedly broke that Premier Don Getty had to stop putting money in the so-called Heritage Fund, which is small enough to have precious little to do with our province's future heritage. Indeed, nothing's gone in ever since, so, as Dave Cournoyer pointed out in an excellent blog post last week, Alberta has managed to save $17.5 billion while Norway has put away $905 billion.

I suppose that money went somewhere, but that'll have to be a topic for another day.

Back in 2009, two years after he tried and failed to increase royalties, we were "meeting the challenge of tough times" under Stelmach, who was astounded by the downturn caused by the 2007-8 financial crisis. Who could have known?

Then we had another boom.

Two years ago, premier Redford was scaling back her leadership campaign promises because, wouldn't you know it, there was an unexpected "Bitumen Bubble" -- a PR term cooked up by her brain trust for the difference between the price fetched by Alberta's dirty bitumen and sweet Texas crude. Or something along those lines. Whatever, there would be an $8-billion shortfall! Who could have predicted it?

Then we had another boom.

Now we have Premier Prentice telling us we're in a "price trough" and everyone will have to go back to being poor again. There will be a $7-billion shortfall! And what a surprise it is! Who knew?

As Cournoyer explained, part of this is just good old-fashioned expectations management. Another part is part is out-and-out propaganda. For example, that projected $7-billion shortfall Prentice told us about last week? According to the sharp-eyed blogger, Alberta was only projected to collect $7.5 billion in total energy royalty revenues in the 2014-15 financial year.

Was Prentice seriously telling us that essentially all of our resource revenues had disappeared? Oh, don't worry your pretty little heads -- just tighten your pretty little belts -- it's way more complicated than that.

The main point being this entire $7-billion prediction rests on an assumption that is almost certainly not true, that the current low price of oil will stay right there right through to the end of the 2016 fiscal year. It could happen. It’s certainly prudent for our government to be aware of the worst-case scenario. But it is unlikely to happen.

Still, it almost seems as if, thanks to the PC way of doing business, Alberta is now in a permanent two-year boom-bust cycle timed to achieve electoral goals. That is, of course, unless Prentice hasn't actually instituted a two-day boom-bust cycle, in which case our heads really will start to spin.

Now, you might think it makes sense to plan for the worst-case scenario by charging fair royalties instead of the lowest on the planet, and returning to a progressive taxation system so that the people who benefit the most from society, and cost it the most, pay their fair share.

Don't look for that under Prentice, however, or for that matter any PC or Wildrose leader.

Anyway, sometime quite soon we'll need to be rich again. The Prentice PCs -- like the Harper Conservatives -- are already floating balloons about an early election, perhaps in case an old PC scandal decides to make a return engagement. We'll need some spending money for an election to take place. So look for the economy to perk up before too long.

In the mean time, pity the poor civil service. The sum of Friday's and yesterday's Siamese twin press releases seems for Alberta civil servants to be "the beatings will continue until morale improves!”

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

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