Mirrors, a bad news budget and a smaller Wildrose

When the fall sitting of the legislature wrapped up Dec. 11, Danielle Smith was still the leader of of the official Opposition made up of 14 Wildrose MLAs. How things have changed.

5 things to watch at the Alberta legislature this session

Former Wildrose Leader Danielle Smith and eight caucus members crossed to the PCs one week after the end of the last legislature session. (The Canadian Press)

When the fall sitting of the legislature wrapped up Dec. 11, Danielle Smith was still the leader of the official Opposition made up of 14 Wildrose MLAs.  

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Staff at the legislature have to rearrange the chairs in the assembly in advance of the start of the spring session this Tuesday.

Smith and eight of her colleagues are now Progressive Conservative backbenchers since the massive defection of Dec. 17 that shocked political observers and neutralized what some have called Alberta’s most effective opposition party in recent political history.

Those new dynamics will be officially in play for the first time on Tuesday. Here are five things to watch over the next few weeks.

1. Wildrose whiplash

The Wildrose was able to retain its status as the official Opposition. However, with only five remaining of 17 members elected in 2012, the caucus is a shadow of its former self

The party is showing some signs of life outside the legislature with three candidates vying to take over the leadership.

In the house, interim leader Heather Forsyth is stepping into Smith’s shoes.  It will be worth watching how the Wildrose goes after the governing Tories in question period, and whether their former leader will be a target.

2. Bad news budget 

Premier Jim Prentice has been the king of economic gloom and doom over the past several months. Alberta faces a possible $7-billion revenue shortfall and everyone is going to have do their share to address that, he says.

Both Prentice and Finance Minister Robin Campbell say they want to reduce the province’s dependence on oil revenues. They are looking at a combination of spending cuts and new taxes, which could even include an end to the 10-per-cent personal income flat tax.

The bad news is coming in the budget on March 26.

3. Mirror mirror on the wall

Prentice seemed like he could do no wrong in his first couple of months as premier. He put the controversial government airplanes up for sale, cracked down on entitlements and ended the closure of the Michener Centre.

Premier Jim Prentice couldn't avoid questions about "mirror-gate" in Ottawa. (CBC)
The failure of Bill 10 -- which would have restricted student-led gay-straight alliance groups --  was his first major misstep.

Now he is in the middle of a social media maelstrom for suggesting Albertans “look in the mirror” to see who is responsible for the province’s financial problems, something critics say amounts to blaming Albertans.

That was hard to swallow for many weary of the spending scandals of Prentice’s predecessor, Alison Redford.

People took to Twitter to express their anger. The resulting hashtag #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans trended across Canada, leaving Prentice to explain himself to the national media, after making an appearance at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa on Friday.

4. Gay-Straight Alliances revisited

The question of whether the province should mandate student-led gay-straight alliances in schools dominated debate in the fall sitting.

The government’s controversial Bill 10 was “put on pause” by Prentice after a week of heated debate on social media and in the legislature during the first week of December.

Prentice took responsibility for the ill-fated bill, which he described as a balance between the rights of parents and schools and the needs of children.

He said the issue would be revisited before the start of the spring session. Nothing has happened yet, but the government still has Monday to make any kind of announcement.

5. Spring vote a sure thing?

Of course, the prospect of a spring election will hang over the entire session. Many political observers say Prentice will drop the writ soon after the budget is tabled.

Alberta law sets the election date for spring of 2016. Prentice has never said directly the vote is happening this year, but he hasn’t ruled it out either. And his answers start getting more definitive as the weeks roll on.

Prentice gave the clearest signal yet while discussing the upcoming “most significant budget in modern times” during a call-in show with News Talk 770 in Calgary last month. 

“There have been no decisions made but I think it’s pretty clear in the circumstances that we are in that whoever is the premier had better have a mandate,” he said.

"He better have the authority to do what needs to be done, and I promise you it will take about 20 minutes after this budget is put on the table that people will say ‘just a minute here, did we agree to that? When did we agree to that?'"

Some predict Prentice will call the election March 30.


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