EDMONTON – With a spring election widely expected, Premier Jim Prentice began selling his tough-love provincial budget Friday by promising not to waver from his promise to fix the broken foundations of Alberta’s economy.
Despite leading a Progressive Conservative party that even Prentice has admitted broke faith with voters in the past, the premier said that won’t happen with him.
“People know me by my reputation, by a lifetime of work, that when I say I am going to do something, I will do it,” said Prentice, a former banking executive and one-time cabinet minister under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“This is a good (budget) plan.
“I intend to stick to it.”
Prentice has said it’s the first step in a 10-year-plan to diversify the revenue base and insulate day-to-day spending from the vagaries of oil prices.
He has also said the budget is so groundbreaking, it can’t be implemented without a mandate from voters.
NDP Leader Rachel Notley predicted it won’t be so easy for Prentice to extricate himself from the Progressive Conservative legacy in an election campaign.
She pointed out that calling an election now would already put Prentice in the PC mould of breaking promises by taking voters to the polls a year ahead of time under Alberta’s fixed election legislation.
An Edmonton lawyer is seeking a court order to prevent Prentice from doing so. Tom Engel says that as a taxpayer and a voter he expects the government to live up to the law.
“This election is going to turn on not only the credibility of the leader, but the credibility of the party that he leads and their past record for breaking more promises than they keep,” said Notley.
“Certainly (Prentice) has not shown a particular divergence in that path.”
Political scientist Duane Bratt said the election outcome will turn on the budget, but he suggested the document is much less far-reaching than what Prentice promised.
“What would have been transformative is a much larger shift to a progressive tax (or) a provincial sales tax (or) a much deeper cut in provincial spending — and he didn’t do those things,” said Bratt, who is with Mount Royal University in Calgary.
The budget increases taxes and fees by $1.5 billion but will still run a $5-billion deficit due to the collapse in oil prices. There will be reductions in services, including the first cut to health care in two decades, and almost $30 billion in debt for infrastructure by 2020.
The Progressive Conservatives have been in continuous power in Alberta since 1971, and former Tory governments have promised — and failed — for years to save more and reduce dependence on oil and gas prices.
Prentice himself has not been shy pointing the finger of blame at his Tory predecessors.
On Friday, he told a chamber of commerce lunch in Red Deer that past Tory governments let health spending get out of control and didn’t keep up on infrastructure.
“The last time we went through this (bust cycle) we made the mistake of shutting down the construction of public infrastructure, and we fell so far behind that we never got caught up again.”