Alberta government ramping up prior to expected election

The recent flurry of government announcements was meant to appeal to a broad range of voters: seniors, students, public sector employees and aboriginal people and focused mainly on big spending areas like health and education.

Redford legacy and low oil reasons for flurry of activity, says political scientist

Premier Jim Prentice announced a new program to help aboriginal people train for jobs in the construction industry on March 17. (CBC)

You can practically hear the wheels of government churning in Edmonton these days.

The amount of ink and well-used phrases being kicked out of Alberta government communications offices in the past two weeks has reached a crescendo, with the final chord, likely in a minor key, coming with this week's budget, and likely followed by a highly-anticipated election call. 

Through it all there’s been one refrain: “the government is fiscally restrained in a very significant way.”

The recent flurry of government announcements appears crafted to appeal to a broad range of voters: seniors, students, public sector employees and aboriginal people and focused mainly on big spending areas like health and education.

And just in case anyone was forgotten in the flurry, and in case regular Albertans forgot the impact of low oil prices, Prentice will take to the airwaves Tuesday and talk for 24 minutes about the financial difficulties facing the province and all of us, as he’s fond of saying.

But some observers think this might not be the premier's best move. 

“I think the timing is really bad,” said Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt. 

Bratt said television addresses are certainly warranted and welcomed by the public, the last being the bitumen bubble update from former Premier Alison Redford in January 2013. 

“But not two days before a budget and a week before an expected election call," Bratt said. "It is no wonder the opposition parties are apoplectic about essentially going on the public airwaves on public dollar for party advertising." 

Indeed, the Wildrose Party went on the attack Friday after learning Prentice's speech will cost taxpayers around $75,000. 

“This is way for the government to use taxpayer dollars right before an election and use every lever of power they have to get re-elected,” Wildrose MLA, Shane Saskiw said, adding that he was uncomfortable taking Prentice up on an offer to respond to the address during the same broadcast. 

If in fact Tuesday night’s address is a chat with Albertans about the province’s finances, there will no doubt be a recap of what the government has accomplished since Prentice took office in September.

What's behind the flurry of activity?

Last week’s announcements, although plentiful, aren’t as substantive as they first appear.

For example, the plan to establish eight to 10 “operational districts” to improve access to health care in rural Alberta is short on details, namely where the districts will be and exactly how many will be created. 

While full of details on the different stages of school construction, the update provided by Infrastructure Minister Manmeet Bhullar earlier this month failed to mention that many of the schools are not actually under construction, but remain empty fields.

Other moves announced by the government — mandating gay-straight alliances in schools where students want them, shifting the weight of diploma exams, revoking Bill 45, the unproclaimed legislation deemed 'odious' by one labour leader — are essentially low hanging fruit, said Bratt. He adds that Prentice, in this spring sitting, has continued what he started in his first 100 days as premier — reversing decisions made by his predecessor, Alison Redford.

Bratt is quick to point out that Prentice is fond of announcements. He says by being aggressive with his messages the premier is trying to distance himself from Redford's legacy and the effects of the precipitous drop in oil prices. 

“Those twin challenges have forced the flurry of activity," he said. "I don’t think it’s all election-driven but we’re about to have an election. I think it’s the twin impact of those two on a relatively new government why so much action has taken place."

But is it action or thinly-disguised campaigning meant to rally the troops and attract new ones, like Rick Hanson, who was appointed the PC candidate in Calgary-Cross the day after he left his position as chief of the Calgary Police Service. 

Either way, Prentice is making sure his message is available to those inclined to read through the sheaf of news releases or flick on the television Tuesday night.


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