Not quite the 'grim Jim' Prentice budget Alberta was primed for

Alberta's new budget will spread some economic pain across the province, but it is not the apocalypse that Premier Jim Prentice was hinting at just a month or so ago, Kathleen Petty writes. He seems to be trying out a new election message.

But the rhetoric has probably gone too far to back away from an early election

Alberta Premier Jim Prentice lugs the new budget delivered by Finance Minister Robin Campbell, right, on Thursday. A $5-billion deficit, public sector layoffs and tax increases. Is he really going to the polls? (The Canadian Press)

If Alberta Premier Jim Prentice's pre-budget rhetoric is to be believed, Albertans will go to the polls roughly a year earlier than the province's fixed election legislation calls for, which would make it this spring rather than a year from now.

"It's pretty clear in the circumstances that we're in that whoever is the premier had better have a mandate. He better have the authority to do what needs to be done," Prentice said late last month.

This week, the premier's language was noticeably less stark. But the underlying message is essentially the same: Alberta is at a crossroads and my government is the only one that can navigate the treacherous terrain.

Parsing words is a kind of political alchemy but political watchers here agree that the change in tone is no accident and that Albertans weren't buying the "grim Jim" persona.

It's not that Albertans aren't aware of the economic dilemma they're facing. Even if we're not technically in recession, for many, it sure feels like one.

It's just that many of us have been here before. Oil prices bottom out. Oil prices climb. That's the cyclical nature of the resource industry.

Though we're being told this time it's different.

Generally, having a majority government — one that's been in power for almost 44 years should be enough of a mandate to introduce and pass a budget — even a tough budget that is going to raise taxes and cut services.

Facing a weak opposition, which was eviscerated further by the mass floor-crossing in December by the Wildrose Party, makes the argument for a fresh mandate sound more than a little hollow.

Janet Brown, a local pollster, says the argument for an early election "was a hard sell before — it's an even harder sell now."

Being in their fifth decade of governing Alberta, it's pretty safe to point out a pattern that is obvious to anyone who's marked a ballot in this province: the government runs against previous iterations of itself.

Granted, the 2012 election, which saw the flowering of Wildrose, had the potential to depart from that hegemony. But in the end, the Tories were returned with a very comfortable majority.

There are some tough measures in this budget. Many Albertans will pay more for goods and services. Some will pay more in taxes. Albertans in the public and private sector will lose jobs.

But the government believes it will lay the fiscal foundation that will take Albertans off the energy teat and secure the future. So why not prove it.

Give Albertans a year to live with this budget. Give them a chance to see the sequel to the resource economy.

It does seem, though, that an election call is still imminent, that Prentice has gone too far down that road to pull back.

But as one colleague argued on Twitter — Prentice doesn't need a mandate, he needs a record. And one budget on its own doesn't do that. 


Kathleen Petty

CBC Calgary's Executive Producer

Kathleen Petty is the one of the founding producers of what is now called CBC News Network. Petty created and produced several shows for the network while also hosting for more than 17 years. In 2006, she moved to radio and hosted the national political affairs program, The House on CBC radio along with national election coverage as well as hosting the local #1 morning show in Ottawa. Since then, Petty has written political analysis for and is now executive producer of CBC News in Calgary.