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Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci, a New Democrat, delivers a traditional Progressive Conservative budget

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Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Despite the predictably apocalyptic tone of Opposition political spokespeople and the unenthusiastic analysis by mainstream media commentators, if you ask me Finance Minister Joe Ceci delivered a traditional Progressive Conservative budget in the Alberta Legislature yesterday.

If this seems odd -- Ceci is a New Democrat, after all -- it's just the Alberta way. We elect new governments from time to time and, before we know it, they start to turn into PCs.

As has been said in this space before, the re-election of Premier Rachel Notley's NDP government would be a virtual certainty if it had a different name, one with "conservative" somewhere in it.

I don't know if NDP is a damaged brand in these parts, exactly, like that of the hapless Alberta Liberals. But the New Democratic Party does have a brand, and Alberta's Conservative Opposition has done its level best to exploit it effectively to paint everything the Notley government does as "risky," "ideological" and "socialist." This has gained some traction … at least among the commentariat.

Nevertheless, Ceci's budget yesterday was a conservative political document in that classic Alberta way: enough of a pivot to "fiscal responsibility" to annoy the NDP's traditional die-hard supporters, a degree of austerity compassionate enough to be deemed insufficient by the perpetually angry conservative base, and a reliance on Alberta's traditional response to bad times in the oil patch, a fervent hope oil prices will go up again soon.

If the NDP has added a new twist, it's the suggestion things will get better when the Trans Mountain Pipeline is completed -- which the government insists is a sure thing and the Opposition prays will never happen on the NDP's watch.

One can argue with this proposition, but it's clever in that it suggests that with the NDP at the helm Alberta has a degree of control over its own fate without having to do the sensible thing and implement a sales tax. The Tories just used to pray to the Oil Gods to make the Saudi Arabians pump less of their high-quality crude. And how'd that ever work out?

The NDP government will probably be annoyed by this characterization. But then, the Usual Suspects on the right will be annoyed too by someone saying that if the finance minister's virtual new shoes were on the other foot, they'd do much the same thing at least as far as deficit and debt go. They'd certainly be meaner, though, given their ideological bent toward privatization, which in the long term would cost us more. But then, as what's happening south of the Medicine Line clearly illustrates, debt and deficits only matter to conservatives when they're not in power.

Ceci's speechwriter, meanwhile, pushed the fiscal responsibility theme hard. I counted the phrase "a path to balance" (as in, we're on one) five times in the minister's speech. The official slogan chosen by the drafters was "A Recovery Built to Last," a phrase clearly designed to push the same button.

As for the pivot to something not unadjacent to fiscal austerity, the NDP's historical supporters -- progressive activists, education and public health-care advocates, unions and commentators like the author of this blog -- will continue to scream for taxes that recognize the fiscal realities of running a modern Canadian province.

And as Ceci observed, with this year's provincial deficit now estimated downward at $8.8 billion, Albertans will still be paying $11.2 billion less in taxes than they would in any other province. So … the conclusion will seem obvious to many.

But they can forget about it. Notley's government is having none of it. And in fairness to their point of view, the conventional wisdom in Alberta (true or not) is that implementing tax increases on that scale would be to commit political suicide.

Anyway, why bother when, as Ceci observed, the province despite its recent troubles not only "surpassed expectations," but "outperformed the rest of the country on a number of key economic metrics -- the highest per-capita GDP, the highest average weekly earnings, and the highest employment the in the country."

And that's without the promised pipeline and the fervently prayed-for oil price increase!

The Opposition is left to argue that the province's long-term debt amounts to the NDP breaking open the Seventh Seal, plus that we should be measuring deficits in per capita terms, not as a percentage of GDP. Well, OK. We know that matters to the media and their ilk.

So will this plan work for the NDP? Well, all the Usual Suspects on the right say no, unanimously and confidently. But notwithstanding the Opposition, the Astro-Turf groups that support them, pollsters that work for them, and the universally right-wing mainstream media in this province, a week is a long time in politics. And a whole year is an eternity.

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

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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