Alberta Budget: Drawing the 2012 Battle Lines
In 2009, Alberta underwent a seismic political shift. Because of that, Budget 2010 has been more highly anticipated and speculated about than last week's Lost premiere. And, at first glance, it's just as confusing, with massive spending increases in some departments and deep cuts in others. After a series of cautious budgets, where the PCs basically threw money at anyone and everyone who asked for it, they've been forced into establishing priorities. And, as we all know, it is not easy to make priorities.
The number 1 priority is, without a doubt, Health Care, which sees its already massive operating budget increase by 17%. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the PC narrative for the next election campaign:
"We have to deal with Aunt Martha who needs her hip, we need to deal with thousands of students who want to learn in modern schools," Snelgrove said. "It's all right to suggest that we can cut $5 billion. I would be a lot more comfortable if they would show Albertans where they would like to cut the $5 billion from and see if Albertans support longer waiting lists, no roads and 60 people in a classroom."
That's not to say the PCs will spend like Alberta PCs have spent in recent years. But they've picked Health Care as their wedge issue with the Wildrose Alliance and, from a strategic perspective, that's not be a bad wedge - it's also an issue that could scare Liberal and NDP voters into voting Stelmach to stop Smith.
But as Colby Cosh points out, the PCs are basically toast if they can't post a surplus by 2012. The good news for them is that it's pretty easy to announce a surplus in Alberta - you just need to tinker with your projected price of oil and natural gas. Still, they needed to make room for the Health Care spending bonanza while gaining street cred with disillusioned right wing voters who have shifted to the Alliance.
So we get huge cuts to culture, the environment, and a dozen other departments, plus the elimination of 795 government jobs. Somewhat troublesome is the 6% cut to advanced education and technology which, to me, shows that an incredible short sighted government has grown even more incredibly short sighted now that its fighting for their political life.
So the PCs have picked Health Care as their issue. What does this mean for the Liberals and NDP, who may have just had their number 1 issue taken away from them?
Well, I think this budget creates a new opening for them. The second Red Ted delivered his budget speech, Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier was already complaining that Stelmach had reneged on promised funds for the city, which may lead to the cancellation of infrastructure projects. There's a certain deja vu to this. Stelmach's first budget (in 2007) was widely seen as being anti-Calgary, and Bronconnier pounced on it, hammering Stelmach into the dust day after day. A desperate Eddie backed down then, and Bronco rode his Danny Williams shtick to re-election that fall.
And, wouldn't you know it? This just so happens to be municipal election year in Alberta again.
Given that, it's almost a given that Bronconnier will try to turn a city and its media, already sour on Stelmach, even more against the Premier. Toss in a 19% cut to housing and urban affairs, and I suspect a few other mayors looking for re-election will be up in arms as well.
It's doubtful Danielle Smith's alternative budget will have any more money for the cities. So the opportunity is there for the Liberals to take the torch and rise to the defense of Calgary - after all, their leader is a Calgarian and they remain an urban party. If I were David Swann, I would pick this as my battle and hound the PCs on it day and night. Stand beside Bronconnier, raise hell in the legislature, write op-eds in the Calgary papers, go on Dave Rutherford demanding Calgary get what was promised. The road to government is going to run through Calgary and the Liberals need to paint themselves as the city's true defenders.
Stelmach has picked his issue - the Liberals need to find theirs.