Tory insiders squander money as layoffs loom
Happy anniversary Madame Premier.
Let’s hope your second year as premier of Alberta is more stellar than your first, but given what’s happening, that looks like a longshot.
Sunday marks one full year in office for Alison Redford, ending a challenging year with a very tough week.
Its lowlights were another grim meeting with her British Columbia counterpart Christie Clark over the Northern Gateway pipeline, and a tale of clueless Alberta government extravagance at the London Olympics.
The former issue is more important, but the latter one got most of the headlines, because it’s so shameful.
More fundamentally, it re-opens questions about how this government plans and spends.
Redford’s government spent half a million dollars on a trip to London to advance Alberta’s interests during the Olympics.
That huge tab would have been considerably higher if her government had not reined in spending by cutting the size of Alberta’s delegation.
The problem is that decision came too late, and Albertans paid for hotel rooms that were booked but never used.
The posh hotel was able to backfill some cancellations with new clients, but not all of them.
Alberta’s tab for the empty rooms, billed out at $850 per night: $113,687.
On the scale of spending for an organization as large as the Alberta government, that’s small beans.
Alberta Health spends that much money every four seconds, every minute of the year.
Albertans, however, have a sense that we get value for most of the money spent on health care.
Junkets by high rollers to party hearty while promoting Alberta’s interests at spectacles like the Olympics are always suspect.
Redford and her close advisers were obviously aware of that public sentiment when they downsized the staffing contingent.
But that decision came too late and the hard-earned dollars of Alberta taxpayers were squandered in London for nothing.
This week, Kerry Towle, the rookie MLA for Innisfail-Sylvan Lake and Opposition party whip, was effective in putting Redford’s government’s feet to the fire on this issue.
She and her Wildrose Party colleagues need to show similar diligence on the more substantive issues.
While Redford’s government is taking a deserved hit on the hotel room boondoggle, it’s slithering by on a much bigger fiasco.
In her first budget as premier in February, Redford pledged to put Alberta back on a sound financial track, with a budgetary deficit of less than $1 billion this year, and surpluses in the years to come.
Within months, however, that commitment was abandoned.
Her government’s fiscal update was delivered by Finance Minister Doug Horner in late August — just in time to be ignored by Albertans getting ready for the Labour Day weekend.
It projected a deficit this year between $2.3 billion and $3 billion.
Instead of talking about growth and enhancement as Alberta’s buoyant economy grows steadily, the government is being forced to consider cutbacks and closures.
Between Horner’s rosy first budget and recent revelations of large ongoing deficits, however, there was another key moment in Alberta politics.
In April, Redford went from a leader selected by her party members to a premier elected by Albertans.
She led the Conservatives to a surprising majority government, capturing 61 of 83 seats in the Alberta legislature.
Optimistic financial projections for a speedy end to deficits played a huge part in that win.
Any chance that was deliberate?
Within weeks of the election, those numbers began to look wobbly.
The budget was based on oil prices averaging almost $100 a barrel over the entire course of the budget year.
The price of West Texas Intermediate crude oil, however, has not closed above US$100 since May.
Other global oil prices have been considerably higher, but without a pipeline anywhere other than the Texas Gulf Coast, Alberta oil is restricted to one market and a discounted price.
No British Columbia politician could possibly get elected or re-elected next year by promoting the Enbridge plan to pipe Alberta crude oil to B.C. for export to fast-growing Asian markets that are willing to pay more for reliable oil supplies.
B.C. Premier Christy Clark’s frosty second recent visit to Alberta this week made it abundantly clear she will not support that plan (until, perhaps, a election victory next year is safely in hand.)
In the meantime, the Alberta economy will grow at a slower rate, and citizens will be forced to endure more deficits, service cutbacks and layoffs.
It’s beginning to look like the unlamented yo-yo days of the Ralph Klein regime.
The premier may need frequent vacations in five-star hotels to soothe her soul this year.
Destinations probably won’t include British Columbia and they better not come on the taxpayers’ dime.
Joe McLaughlin is the retired managing editor of the Red Deer Advocate.