Picture is bleak

It was only to be expected; public sector unions and health worker associations lashed out at Premier Jim Prentice’s speech

It was only to be expected; public sector unions and health worker associations lashed out at Premier Jim Prentice’s speech at the Rotary Club of Edmonton on Monday, when he clearly identified his next target: public sector wages.

After he, his cabinet and his senior staff took wage cuts of five percent, Mr. Prentice has turned on the working population of the province in order to save the day in the face of stubbornly low oil prices, which don’t show much promise of rising enough, to a level that can render the operations in oil sands in northern Alberta at least ongoing.

Apparently in his speech, Mr. Prentice also mentioned that his new policies would be oriented to reduce the dependence of the province’s finances on royalties from oil production.

Now that is a story one would like to really believe, but not without seeing it.

Mr. Prentice’s desperation is becoming more and more apparent everyday and one comment on a news website reporting his Rotary speech may be reflecting an increasingly widely shared view in the province. The commentator said: “Instead of giving us another ‘sky is falling’ speech, why doesn’t he figure out how to run the damned province and sell our oil properly? He’s starting to come off as incompetent.”

Looks like we are going to see interesting times in the weeks and months ahead: If the premier goes on and legislates new restrictions in the public bargaining process for the unions, he will face the possibility of a massive reaction in the ballot box as he makes plans for an early spring election; if he doesn’t, he will be perceived as incapable of taking action to address the dire situation. If he keeps lingering without taking any decisive steps, the deteriorating situation in public finances will start to get out of control and it is highly likely that the province will start to borrow from the market.

But there is more to it: For a successful election campaign, Mr. Prentice will need a lot of funding and the people with deep pockets who could come to the rescue are the managers of big oil; to keep them in the fold, he cannot touch the privileged position of those quarters that have been making billions of dollars in tax breaks and hidden subsidies over the years, thanks to sympathetic PC premiers over the years. But saviors have been losing money as of late, too.

As a result, the Alberta premier appears to be coming under increasing pressure, finding it very difficult to sneak out from his current position between a rock and hard place.

This is actually likely to prove a problem for the federal government as well, as Stephen Harper begins to launch his campaign to retain his job in October. (The problems in Ottawa will grow more insurmountable as the general elections approach and Mr. Harper will have some bigger fish to fry, but that is another discussion.)

Neither Mr. Harper, nor Mr. Prentice have the right to complain because of the hole they find themselves in, because they or their parties (in the case of Mr. Prentice) have been digging them for themselves by being politicians serving corporate interests rather than being statesmen serving the people of this country and this province.

Being politicians, their personal wealth and well being will not be hurt whatever happens in the weeks and months ahead, but a lot of citizens will suffer dire consequences and will find it very hard to hold politicians to account.