Unlike Jimmy Carter, Jim Prentice doesn't claim to be a nuclear physicist or a peanut farmer, or even to answer all his correspondence personally, and that's entirely to his credit. Just the same, Alberta's premier is being pretty economical with the truth these days, and, I don't know about you, but it’s starting to bug the heck out of me.
I mention Jimmy Carter only because of the way the one-term U.S. President was famously called out by Harper's Magazine during the 1976 presidential campaign in a then-controversial article entitled "Jimmy Carter’s Pathetic Lies."
Just in case anyone’s thinking exactly the same thing here, Prentice doesn't seem to be padding his own resume -- he really is a bazillionaire banker -- as Carter was accused of doing. (The future one-term Democratic Party president wasn't a nuclear physicist and a peanut farmer, for example. He had a bachelor's degree and owned a peanut warehouse.)
Just the same, there just seems to be a certain amount of sly disingenuity about a lot of things that Prentice has to say nowadays.
This is a change from the previous three Progressive Conservative premiers of Alberta: Ralph Klein didn't really need to lie, because no matter how idiotically he behaved, everyone seemed to love the guy. We’ll talk about the reasons for that in a minute.
Ed Stelmach apparently couldn't lie, that’s why we all called him "Honest Ed." Over time, as his honesty infuriated the loony right among his own PC supporters, he seemed to grow on the rest of us. Alison Redford didn't know how to lie convincingly, which is why almost nobody believed it wasn't All About Alison, which it obviously was.
But let's get back to the Jim Prentice's pathetic lies, or, to be completely fair about this, it would be more accurate to say Prentice’s pathetic spin.
On Tuesday of this week, the premier and his finance minister were taking credit for the fact the province had unexpectedly announced it would likely post a surplus for the latest fiscal year.
Why? Because of insignificant cabinet and MLA pay cuts, a hiring freeze that has not yet taken effect, a decision to buy fewer ads and conference sponsorships, unfinished plans to close a couple of trade offices, and the sale of some government airplanes. On Wednesday, they added a similarly insignificant pay cut for the premier’s tiny and extremely generously compensated political staff.
Do they seriously expect anyone to believe that this accounts for the billion dollars in difference between what we were being told a few days ago would be the bottom line for Alberta's fiscal 2015 (a half-billion-dollar deficit) to what we were being told on Tuesday that the year’s books will say (close to a half-billion-dollar surplus)? Apparently, yes. Or so, at least the government’s slick Toronto-based political advisors must've advised them.
Also Wednesday, the premier was spinning U.S. President Barack Obama's reasons for exercising his presidential veto on the Republican Congress's Keystone XL Pipeline legislation hard enough to justify his own narrative that he had to know he wasn't telling the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
"At the end of the day this is really a debate about whether Canadian oil that's moving into the U.S. market will move by rail or whether it will move by pipeline," said Prentice, twisting President Obama’s motivations and reasoning like a pretzel. "The president has made a choice that he prefers to see it move by rail. We don’t think that's the best choice."
Of course, as Prentice knows perfectly well, the KXL Pipeline is all about increasing export capacity for the Athabasca Bitumen Sands. Yes, lots of oil moves south by rail -- and the same amount of oil will continue to do so even if KXL is built.
So this is all about exporting more bitumen, not the mode of transport to be used to move a particular amount of the stuff.
Prentice just thinks you're too dumb to figure that out, you not being a bank vice-president and Ottawa insider and all, so he’s telling you a tall tale confident that he can get away with it.
Then there's Prentice's yarn, also told in the last couple of days, that we all have a big problem here because "contract settlements made by previous administrations and significantly lower resource revenues have created a very challenging fiscal outlook for Alberta." (Emphasis added.)
Well, we expect Conservative governments to blame modestly paid public employees for their own mismanagement, but pointing the finger at "previous administrations" is a bit rich.
The previous administration in question that signed the deals with three large public sector unions Prentice would very much like to wiggle out of was the one led by Premier pro tempore Dave Hancock. Remember him? He was still the premier less than six months ago.
You could argue those collective agreements weren't all that earth shattering, all things considered, but regardless of that, the deals were done by the PC government to clear the decks for a guy named Jim Prentice, who was waiting in the wings to take over and save the party. It is said here it's very unlikely under the circumstances that Prentice didn’t know perfectly well, or for that matter give the nod to, what the Hancock Government was doing.
But even if he didn't, the people sitting around the cabinet table ratifying these agreements -- with which the Prentice Government now supposedly finds itself so unfairly saddled -- included the likes of Robin Campbell, Diana McQueen, Manmeet Bhullar, Verlyn Olsen, Heather Klimchik, Kyle Fawcett and Jonathan Denis.
Did I miss anyone? Alert readers will notice that every one of them now sits around Prentice’s cabinet table.
Does Prentice seriously expect us to believe that he's been saddled with these problems by another administration, and that he represents new management, a breath of fresh air? Apparently yes.
And now he's going to go for an early election -- within hours, some say, certainly soon -- for which there is no legal, moral or ethical justification except for Jim Prentice’s convenience.
He'll probably tell us he's been consulting Albertans all winter and this is what they want. And he’ll probably tell us there's an urgent need for a "mandate" for a new leader like him. And he'll probably expect us to take that one hook, line and sinker too.
And that’s just the pathetic spin we've heard in the past two or three days! Never mind the premier’s dubious narrative about Bill 10, the mechanism his government used to block a private member's bill that would have forced schools to allow students to set up gay-straight alliances on their premises, or the hard-to-believe backstory about the Wildrose defections to the premier's caucus.
OK, I promised to tell you why Ralph Klein could get away with this kind of thing and others couldn't.
Well-known Alberta pollster Janet Brown says there's a thing she calls "the Politics of Intention." She pretty much coined the phrase, at least in the Alberta context.
"Voters judge politicians more on what they think their intentions are than on their actions," Brown explains. "If they think a politician is genuinely trying to do the best thing for the province, even if they disagree with what he's doing, they'll cut him a lot of slack. Albertans thought Ralph went to work every day intending to do right by the province."
Prentice's bet is that if he does the same things as Ralph Klein, Albertans will like him the same way they liked Ralph Klein. A lot of the Usual Suspects on the Canadian Right seem to have been advising him that this is so.
But is it really? I'm not so sure. I'm not at all certain Albertans will conclude Prentice's intentions are to do right by anybody except Jim Prentice himself and his pals in high places.
The rest of us get tall tales that don’t stand up on close examination.
To paraphrase Democrat Lloyd Bentsen's famous comment to Republican Dan Quayle in the 1988 U.S. vice-presidential debate: "I knew Ralph Klein... Premier, you're no Ralph Klein!"
This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.
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