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The surplus sun is shining, so expect the deficit apocalypse: Welcome to the Groundhog Province!

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Robin Campbell

Talk about deja vu all over again!

It was unnerving to listen to Alberta Finance Minister Robin Campbell's announcement yesterday that, despite all the dire predictions prompted by the notorious plunge in world oil prices, the province will post a surplus at the end of the fiscal year.

For one thing, it sounded like a complete contradiction of everything the Progressive Conservative government has been saying until a few hours ago. For another, it all sounded so eerily familiar. A lot of Albertans have to be asking themselves: What's with this, anyway?

There are lots of ways a government, depending on its stripes, could spin this particular situation, although we can already be reasonably certain how the PCs of Premier Jim Prentice will do it, ably assisted by their slick political advisers from Toronto.

They could tell us all is well after all, thanks to their good management, and enough Albertans would probably believe them to get them through the early election they so desperately want to call.

Or they could tell us that the worst is coming true, and the deepest depths of the oil price trough will be here shortly, and folks might have believed that too and been prepared to cinch up their belts.

But the Prentice Conservatives, count on it, are going to say both things are true. That we're only expecting a surplus after all this doom and gloom because of the pure wonderfulness of Prentice, plus that we're also going to have to stay the course and cut the crap out of public services to keep things sweet.

Indeed, Campbell was starting to say just that yesterday as the PCs manoeuvre us toward what a jaundiced Alberta electorate increasingly regards as an unnecessary and possibly illegal early election. (It is unnecessary, as the Prentice government has a legal mandate. Former premier Alison Redford's silly set-election-period law notwithstanding, though, it is most certainly not illegal.)

Come to think of it, this is just like saying the weather's going to be horrible for another six weeks because it’s warm and the sun is shining brightly: Welcome to the Groundhog Province!

The question is, will this sell in Ponoka, Provost, Picture Butte, Pincher Creek and other postal points?

It could work, I suppose. After all, most Albertans still see themselves as small-c conservatives and there are no conservative parties left, all of a sudden, except for the Big Cs headed by Prentice and his Wildrose pals.

But I've got a feeling yesterday's third-quarter fiscal update just about gives a lot of good Albertans, the kind of small-c conservatives who were willing to cut Prentice a little slack to see how he'd do, a case of hives.

First, there was that sleazy takeover of the Wildrose Opposition, which doesn't pass the sniff test for a lot of folks. Then there's that anticipated early election nobody except Prentice and the boys from Navigator Ltd. seem to want. Now there's the cognitive dissonance of being told in the government's third-quarter update that we're going to have a half-billion-dollar surplus when they've just been telling us for weeks we're going to have a half-billion-dollar deficit.

So, are they joshing us, or are they just incompetent? No! They're taking credit. "Government has taken action to reduce spending," Campbell's news release said, listing insignificant cabinet and MLA pay cuts, a hiring freeze that has barely taken effect, fewer ads and conference sponsorships, plans to close a couple of trade offices, and the sale of some government airplanes no one wants to buy. (The latter will actually cost us more, but never mind that for the moment.)

Consider this statement: "I think we can consider ourselves lucky that we're in a province with … the lowest personal income taxes, no provincial sales tax, lowest corporate taxes and a province that will have a surplus" …

That wasn't Campbell, of course. That was Progressive Conservative finance minister Iris Evans, back in 2008, saying pretty much the same thing in pretty much the same circumstances.

See for yourselves! You can read what Evans, who served premier Ed Stelmach as finance minister, had to say here. And you can read what Campbell, who serves Premier Prentice in the same capacity, had to say here.

You could argue that a big part of the problem experienced by Stelmach, Redford and Prentice was left to them by a premier named Ralph Klein.

As former Calgary Herald managing editor Gillian Steward explained it Monday in the pages of the Toronto Star, a few hours before we were whipsawed by the idea of a surplus instead of a deficit, our PC premiers have to keep compensating for the mistakes made by previous Tory premiers, especially every time oil prices "unexpectedly" fall.

Consider those high health-care and public sector salaries that all the usual suspects in the Canadian Outrage Industry keep telling Prentice he must cut like Ralph Klein cut them: "One of the reasons doctors, nurses and health-care professionals in Alberta have such high salaries is that so many of them left the province when Ralph Klein cut public service spending by 20 per cent," Steward wrote. "A few years later something had to be done to bring them back as well as recruit medical professionals from other provinces and countries."

What do you want to bet that if Prentice does the same thing, thousands of nurses and doctors will do the same thing too, with precisely the same long-term results?

Or what about our overheated economy, always cooked up with the willing connivance of Tory governments in Edmonton and Ottawa. "Thousands of people moved here to get in on the action but the government has failed to keep up with the growth in population let alone get ahead of it. … The real truth is that the government has been squeezing public services to the point where they don’t come close to what is actually needed."

Or maybe it's as simple as this: Alberta's Progressive Conservative governments never learn anything, no matter which leader they choose to be the conductor of the train, and we just keep reliving the past over and over like the characters of Groundhog Day, the movie.

There is a way to fix this, people …

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

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