Saturday, August 22, 2009

Where Is The Premier of Alberta When We Need Him?

Where is the Premier of Alberta? Why is he absent from our consciousness and allowing our anxieties and worst fears to fester? Why is he not communicating powerfully and effectively with the people of Alberta?

The Province is facing a deficit in this fiscal year of $7 billion and is planning to make cuts to public expenditure in the next budget of $4billion, including cuts to education, health and social services. The Province is planning, largely through inaction, significant increases in electricity costs due to its support for the unproven carbon sequestration program with an already firm commitment of $2 billion we cannot afford and an ask for another $1billion a year which is definitely beyond the scope of this Government. Health care cuts are coming and people are getting anxious.

The key problem is not the recession, though this is clearly not helping. The key problem is a fundamental change in the way in which the natural gas price is behaving and this is dramatically affecting government revenues. This problem is structural – it will challenge the base economic model of the Government – and will not go away. The dynamics of the natural gas market have changed in a way that will reduce revenues for the Government for some time to come.

The Premier has mused about the dangers of the US Climate Change Bill, which contains a clause that would permit the US Government to impose tarrifs at the border on commodities entering the US which were produced with a higher footprint than other similar goods coming from US sources and he is right to do so. But his comments weren’t backed up by a briefing document showing the impact such a scheme could have on oil, gas, coal, lumber and other industries and on the Alberta economy. Too vague and too mute.

The Premier did make a rare public statement to make clear that “while he was Premier” there would be no new taxes and no tax hikes. An unwise commitment, especially in the light of the ongoing economic challenges the Province faces. Albertans enjoy their low tax regime, but would prefer to pay more taxes to sustain many health, education and social services than to cut them as severely as now seems planned. Now the only way in which tax hikes can occur is if the Premier resigns and a new Premier takes his place. Some saw the Premiers tax statement as a veiled resignation offer to the party.

The last two months, at least amongst the bloggers and journalists in Alberta, there have been rumours of a coming cabinet shuffle, triggered in part by the resignation of the Deputy Premier, Ron Stevens, and by a growing concern about the strength of the finance and treasury team now challenged, according to some, beyond their competence. The furor that surrounded Bill 44 was also taken as a sign that things need shaking up and the Premier needs to show that he is in charge and stop the next action equivalent to a Bill 44 mistake. Firing one MLA showed some metal, but then the sword was put back in its sheath and the Premier appeared to go back to sleep.

One would expect a Premier, who is no intellectual slouch and a very down to earth kind of guy, to be on camera helping Albertans understand what is happening in and to their Province, how he sees the future and laying out his options for change. Creating the right context and climate for action is one of the things required to make change work. Instead he is absent, leaving the talking to others, not all of whom know what the message is or should be.

It is time for a clear statement of the challenges we face as a Province – we need an interim financial statement, a context statement and a set of options. We need these to come from the Premier and we need these statements now. As confidence in the Premier erodes – he is already concerned about the November Red Deer leadership review and he should now be more concerned, as anxiety grows and confidence in the ability of this Government to act also declines.

Maneuvers are going on behind the scenes on budget, on change and on other challenges Alberta faces – quiet meetings are being held and briefings given. Put the public is left out of the conversation, which is not smart.

Its time to meet the people. To be transparent. To share the challenges. To make clear that the future isn’t what it used to be. Alberta needs a Premier it can see, hear and talk to.

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