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Who’s to blame for Alberta’s mess?

Alberta premier Jim Prentice faced backlash last week after implying that Albertans are to blame for the government’s $7-billion revenue shortfall. Prentice said on CBC’s radio program Alberta@Noon that Albertans “need only look in the mirror” to see who is responsible for the province’s budgetary woes. 

The story made headlines around the country, and the hashtag #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans trended nationally. The comment was an obvious blunder, but it does raise the question — who is to blame for Alberta’s fiscal crisis? 

The truth is that no one person or institution is at fault. The government is most responsible, and they do deserve part of the blame. But the Albertans who continue to elect that government aren’t without blame. So too are the opposition parties that refuse to cooperate and seem content in their irrelevance.

The Progressive Conservatives have governed Alberta for 43 consecutive years, and they’ve repeatedly failed to prepare for fluctuations in the price of oil. They consistently spend more on public services than every other province in Canada. This isn’t a problem in and of itself, but these expenditures are funded in part by oil and gas royalties, and they still need to be paid for when oil prices decline. 

The current low price for a barrel of oil means that the government isn’t getting their royalties and can’t balance the budget. Economists have said for years that the government should consider other revenue streams to avoid the current predicament. The PC government has stubbornly refused to either rein in spending or increase revenue from other sources. The result is a $7-billion hole in the budget, for which the PCs deserve much of the blame.

Prentice was right though — Albertans are at least partially to blame. The PCs couldn’t have so grossly mismanaged the province’s finances if they hadn’t been elected over and over again, winning an astonishing 11 straight elections since 1971.

The party has a record that is far from spotless and the PCs have given Albertans numerous opportunities to vote them out of office. The party continues to win large majority governments, even with economic mismanagement and various scandals.

A $7-billion revenue shortfall and inevitable budget cuts are unlikely to stop Albertans from giving the PCs a 12th consecutive mandate in the anticipated spring election. We appear content to let a party that has done nothing in 43 years to prepare for our current economic uncertainty form the government — again.

Left wing and centrist opposition parties rarely present a viable alternative to the PCs. Their refusal to cooperate with each other has paved the way for the policies that led to the current crisis.

Alberta has four parties left of the PCs on the political spectrum. The Alberta Party, the Evergreens, the New Democrats and the Liberals split the vote in many ridings, consistently ending up with less than a handful of seats between them.

The presence of multiple left-wing parties in a conservative province virtually guarantees none of them will ever form the government. The Liberals and the NDP rejected a merger even after their defeats in four separate by-elections in November. A proposal by Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman to merge with the Alberta party was rejected by the Liberals in February.

If these parties cared about having their ideas implemented, they would cooperate and find a way to challenge the PCs. While a united left-of-centre party still might not win too many elections, they would at least form an opposition strong enough to keep the PCs accountable.

Refusing to cooperate with each other consigns Alberta’s left wing and centrist parties to obscurity. There are differences between them, but they agree on most major issues. All would raise corporate taxes and implement a progressive income tax to deal with Alberta’s revenue shortfall. Albertans who prefer these solutions will have to choose between four parties this spring, once again assuring a PC victory.

From the right, the Wildrose Party was the closest thing to a valid opposition Alberta has seen in a long time. But after leader Danielle Smith led most of the party across the floor in December, the Wildrose is left with a handful of irrelevant social conservatives that can’t find a stable seat in one of the most conservative province’s in Canada.

The Wildrose would deal with the budgetary shortfall by cutting social spending to the bare minimum. But right-wing opposition to the PCs has all but disappeared from public discussions.

Jim Prentice made a mistake when he blamed Albertans for the current revenue crisis. Not because he was wrong, but because we don’t want to admit it ourselves.

Fabian Mayer, Gauntlet Editorial Board

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