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Are there any progressives left in Alberta's Progressive Conservative caucus?

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Jim Prentice

A year ago, Alberta's Progressive Conservative Government apparently had no idea there would be a revenue shortfall today. Now they're confidently predicting we'll have a $21-billion revenue shortfall after three years.

This speculative and highly dubious conclusion is the basis for Finance Minister Robin Campbell's grim announcement Wednesday, clearly on the instructions of Premier Jim Prentice, that we are on the verge of replicating the incompetence and foolishness of the Ralph Klein era by slashing almost 10 per cent across-the-board out of all public sector activities.

At the same time, the premier, who with an assist from his Wildrose posse of defectors quite clearly sees himself the real finance minister of Alberta, not to mention the de facto MLA for virtually every riding in the province, insists that nothing will be done to rationalize Alberta’s revenue stream while we get our financial house in order.

The lowest petroleum royalties on the planet? Not a problem. The most unfair taxation system in Canada? Not a problem. Minimal taxation of the foreign dominated corporations that take our resources essentially for free and invest nothing in return? Not a problem.

We're all just going to have to take a haircut to make sure none of that changes!

In such circumstances, as has been said in this space many times before, anyone who has been paying attention understands that one of the three following conclusions must be true. Alberta’s PC governments …

(a)    Simply don't get it that resource revenues are cyclical and are thus incapable of the level of planning required to competently run a lemonade stand;

(b)    Are flat-out lying every time we have one of these "surprise" downturns in the economy in order to achieve long-term ideological goals the public would never stand for if presented honestly; or

(c)    Some combination of the two.

My guess is the answer is (c). But whether the explanation is cynical lying or spectacular incompetence, the same conclusion is unavoidable: Alberta's situation is made far worse by our government's failure to plan for entirely predictable circumstances. Not only that, but nothing ever changes when the Tories change leaders.

So for this reason alone, citizens of other parts of Canada need to pay close attention to what is happening in Alberta under Prentice’s increasingly radical leadership, because it helps predict what will likely happen if the Alberta-dominated Conservative Party of Canada manages to secure a second majority government.

These are, after all, the same people, singing from the same hymnbook.

Also relevant to the rest of Canada are questions that increasingly need to be asked about the Alberta PC Government.

First, after the Wildrose Party's successful reverse takeover of the Tories, with Prentice late of Prime Minister Stephen Harper's cabinet acting as the inside man, are there any progressives left in the Progressive Conservative Party?

I use the term "progressive" here not in the sense it is usually used on the centre left, but simply to denote a belief in any public services, or indeed a role for government other than the operation of a surveillance state.

We could go farther and ask, are there any democrats left in the Alberta Tory caucus, or anyone who understands how responsible government is supposed to work?

On Wednesday, apparently acting as the province's single MLA, Premier Prentice simply overruled the decision of a committee of MLAs by dictatorial fiat. Does he have the constitutional authority to do that? Not really, although whether the PC caucus will go along with him, as the seemingly befuddled former union leader who is now the finance minister goes along with him, is another matter entirely.

Moreover, is there anyone who understands or cares about commonsense economics in the caucus?

After all, the impact of the kind of irresponsibility now proposed by Prentice, when tanking oil prices are already pushing the economy downward, is certain to lead to a recession of unnecessary severity, and one, moreover, that will spread beyond the borders of Alberta as we characteristically download the impact of our unemployment and economic policies onto other provinces.

So if there are progressives, or believers in democracy, or people who understand basic economics in the PC caucus, or even just people who would like to avoid a backlash from the rest of Canada, they seem to be keeping their heads down and their lips zipped, presumably in fear of suffering the same fate as similarly progressive Conservatives in Harper’s Reform Party caucus.

For sure, new MLAs willing to speak up are not welcome. As former Wildorse MLA Joe Anglin, now the Independent representative for Rimbey-Rocky Mountain House-Sundre, said in a terse news release yesterday: "I cannot and will not be a passive MLA that will raise his hand when told, and not ask questions. … This is my vision of democracy and I cannot reconcile it with the current PC Party’s understanding of democracy."

In fairness, the PCs may have had other reasons for not welcoming Anglin. But his point is well made nonetheless.

The deafening silence of the PC caucus certainly tells a story about the real meaning of the so-called "reunification agreement" cobbled together by Prentice and former Opposition leader Danielle Smith before the party's reverse takeover by the Wildrosers, supposedly advocates of more freedom for MLAs to vote their consciences.

This too is relevant to voters elsewhere in Canada because the Alberta model of an opposition-free quasi-democracy is what the Harper Government hopes to replicate in Parliament as well.

If there are any progressives left in the PC caucus -- as some PC MLAs are bound to privately insist -- then it is time for them to speak up.

It's all very well to advocate lower spending by governments. There are always efficiencies that can be found, and circumstances when belt-tightening is genuinely appropriate. We can talk about that.

But as we saw what happened to health care during the Klein era, and could very well happen again during the Prentice era, cuts done across the board without a plan or priorities are destructive and dangerous, although they may benefit certain powerful people with an inside track to power and profit.

Indeed, if you think about it, what is being proposed is actually dumber than what Klein did, since he at least didn't act during a recessionary moment of falling oil prices.

If those self-described Conservative progressives don't speak up, and don’t exercise their constitutional right as MLAs in a responsible government to vote as their conscience dictates, all their claims are nothing more than self-delusion.

As former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney famously told his Liberal counterpart, John Turner, in the 1984 leaders' debate: "You had an option, sir!"

Mr. Campbell? Thomas Lukaszuk? Other supposedly progressive Conservatives? You have an option too.

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

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