Alberta: Government By Trial Balloon

“The chickens are coming home to roost, and you live in the chicken house.”– General MacArthur to President Kennedy during the Bay of Pigs crisis.

Mr Prentice, like President Kennedy, managed to get elected just in time to confront the nasty consequences of decisions made by his predecessors.

Albertans are staring down the barrel (gun, not oil) of an $18 billion deficit over the next three years. For a government that bills itself as “fiscally conservative,” this is an unmitigated disaster.

Polls and trial balloons

In difficult times, most politicians commission polls and launch trial balloons.

John F Kennedy was not one of those politicians. He didn’t commission any polls during his presidency, preferring to incorporate the results of others’ polls with his own observations, research and political intuition and make his own decisions, for which he remained solely accountable.*

Sadly, that’s not the case in Alberta.

Under Mr Prentice we’re faced a barrage of trial balloons, flying like flak in the London Blitz, as he tries to determine which way the political wind is blowing. He’s tested everything from ignoring the set election date to introducing a sales tax.

Mainstreet Poll

This brings us to the Mainstreet Technologies poll that was recently “provided to” the Calgary Herald. Provided to…? Did it just slide in under the door?

Mainstreet conducted an automated telephone poll of 3,184 Albertans to determine what sorts of revenue generating mechanisms they’d accept in order to balance the budget (currently $7 billion short).

The overwhelming consensus (43%) was that government should cut spending. Raising taxes (15%), running a bigger deficit (11%) and increasing borrowing (9%) trailed far behind.

A provincial sales tax, floated by the Premier with the caveat that Albertans don’t like it but he’s “prepared to be educated and hear from the people” (which “people” is not entirely clear)***was supported by only 9% of those surveyed.**

The Calgary Herald says, “This threatens to forcefully prick Prentice’s trial balloon.”

Let’s pause for a moment to consider the implications of that statement.

Trial balloons

The term “trial balloon” was coined in 1782 when the Montgolfière brothers invented the Montgolfière globe aérostatique (hot air balloon). Not being complete idiots they weren’t about to risk life and limb without first determining whether man could survive 400 meters in the air. So they sent aloft a sheep, a duck and a rooster. (The king suggested they launch two criminals but was talked out of it). The farm animals returned safely to earth and Étienne Montgolfière became the first human to sail into the wild blue yonder.****

Politicians use trial balloons for the same reason. They’re not about to risk their political capital on a policy position that might turn around and bite them. If public reaction is negative, they can walk away unscathed.

Politicians lacking vision (like Mr Prentice) launch trial balloons left, right and centre in the hope that somewhere along the line they’ll get it right. This demonstrates a lack of conviction in the party’s platform or a lack of confidence in the government’s ability to explain difficult issues to the electorate.

So we can expect Mr Prentice to respond to Alberta’s financial crisis by cobbling together a “mandate” based on whatever is least offensive to the public, and “testing” this mandate by calling a snap election.

The “mandate” will bear no resemblance to PC party policy unless Mr Prentice holds a policy convention to ratify it. Don’t hold your breath.

Politicians blessed with vision make significant policy decisions without test driving them first.

Peter Lougheed was such a politician. Shortly after he was elected, he shocked Big Oil by boosting royalty revenues from 17% to 40%. His decision was consistent with his belief that Albertans own their natural resources and should be properly compensated for them. He added $10 billion a year to the provincial treasury.

Prentice’s priorities

Now wait. Isn’t this a little harsh? Wasn’t Mr Prentice working hard on other things when he was blindsided by the drop in oil prices?

Here are the five priorities he set out in the Throne Speech; you tell me:

  1. A focused commitment to sound conservative principles: So far it’s been trial balloons and veiled threats against the public sector.
  2. Ending entitlement and restoring public trust: He appointed a governance committee to review four of the 200 agencies, boards and commissions (ABCs) but flip flopped on whether he’ll publish salaries paid to ABCs’ staff who manage two-thirds of the budget.
  3. Maximizing the value of our natural resources and respecting property rights: He visited oil companies in Houston, picked up a T-bird on his way home and plans to visit Washington later this month. He passed Bill 1 which repealed one offensive property law but leaves six equally offensive laws on the books.
  4. Establishing Alberta as an environmental leader: The carbon levy is delayed…again.
  5. Enhancing Alberta’s quality of life: Hundreds of schools and hospitals were announced, then postponed because oil prices took a nose dive.

Not much progress; so what has he been doing?


Mr Prentice spent the fall of 2014 consolidating power by eviscerating the Wildrose opposition. He’ll spend the spring of 2015 (the Legislature doesn’t reconvene until March 10, 2015) ensuring everything is in place for a snap election.

And he’s busy distracting the public by launching trial balloons to get a fix on the political slogans that will best capture the attention of the 40% of the population who are not too fed up to vote.

Frankly, I’d rather see him send up a sheep, a duck and a rooster. That would be equally unproductive but a whole lot more entertaining.

*Kennedy, The Classic Biography by Ted Sorensen, p 333


***Calgary Herald, Jan 20, 2015, A12


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18 Responses to Alberta: Government By Trial Balloon

  1. Ted Woynillowicz says:

    “The overwhelming consensus (43%) was that government should cut spending. Raising taxes (15%), running a bigger deficit (11%) and increasing borrowing (9%) trailed far behind.”

    It would be interesting to follow up with the 43%ers and ask where the spending cuts should come from? Perhaps from police departments, oh… here’s one, let’s cut back of fire departments, sheriifs, inspections, education, health care, post secondary. The ‘trim the fat’ thing has been going on for a long time. Perhaps more of that. It does appear that the 43%ers don’t get it.

    • Ted, the population’s inability to connect the dots leaves me mystified. The public forgets that police, fire, EMS, nurses, teachers, etc work hard and deserve decent pay and benefits. It can’t all go to middle and senior management in the oil companies, many of whom receive bonuses directly related to “corporate welfare” (tax and royalty breaks and subsidized costs).
      Having said that I certainly agree with the public’s concern about waste, but it’s important to identify the cause of that waste. Calgary’s new (and postponed yet again) cancer centre started out as a $100 million project and ballooned to a $1.6 billion project due to “scope creep”. It’s been approved by the government three times and has been moved from the Foothills hospital site to the South Health Campus over the objections of cancer doctors and researchers. Lord only knows where it will end up, assuming it gets built in the first place. Alberta Health Services (under 5 different CEOs and Minister Horne, now Mandel), Alberta Health (under Minister Mandel) and Alberta Infrastructure (under Minister Bhullar) are all responsible for planning and building the hospital–a classic example of “if everyone is accountable, no one is accountable”.
      If the government wants to cut spending it should take a good hard look at its own incompetent ministers before it starts slashing the little people.

  2. Julie Ali says:

    Hi Susan,

    I think Mr. Prentice is doing exactly what he planned to do–which is waste time until the Progressive Conservative Party of Alberta gets re-elected in a spring election. He’s not about to mess up the party’s current renaissance by annihilation of the Wildrosies by spooking the Tory voters into voting NDP or Liberal. He wants us all soothed back to sleep.

    After a spring election, cutbacks will begin. When the party gets re-elected again as the monarchs they are, then will come the public sector cuts, the failure to build hospitals and schools plus the continuation of the do nothing, coasting style of governance that we are all used to. But why should Mr. Prentice care? He has his T-bird and he’s got a plan for his own upward mobility.

    Mr. Prentice (in my mind) is simply wasting our time until he goes back to the federal party as the next Harper.The provincial stage is simply a way to showcase to us his non-existent skills as a leader before he goes on to the next unleader job as the head of the Progressive Conservative Party of Canada.

    The premier gig is just for advertisements. None of our premiers are great leaders. They are made out to be special by the myth making machinery that is present in Alberta. It’s pretty clear to me that we have been suckered. We’ve been through this type of unleader before with the Klein error, the Stelmach flop and the Redford debacle. This is nothing new. Albertans are willing to accept anything if it comes in the sheep in wolves’ clothing bearing the Tory brand label.

    It’s a shame. We could have had intelligent men and women effectively lead this province with enough in savings to ensure balanced budgets in bust times but instead we hired these incompetent ordinary citizens who have delusions of grandeur about their roles. In my mind just because you get a title of MLA doesn’t mean you are a bigwig; it just means you have been hired by ordinary citizens to do a job and if you can’t do it this means you should be fired. These folks should all be fired.

    It’s a mess. The NDP might get ahead in Edmonton but they have been labeled as communists when the real communists are the Tories; the Liberals appear to be a whipping party for the Tories who have managed to myth make them into the traitor party. Why people are so stupid I will never understand. Maybe folks are benefiting from voting Tory. Who knows?

    I believe all our dumb voting decisions will enrich the party faithful, the politicians and their donors but it won’t lead to sensible development of resources in this province. Too bad. It could have so much more than greed and stupidity but this is Alberta and we are fools. I expect that money has this bad effect on people. They may have been nice folks when they started but put enough money in their presence and it all goes to hell in terms of character, ethics and behavior.

    • Absolutely bang on Julie! Just to pick up on your very last sentence when I think about all the things that Prentice promised and didn’t deliver the one that rankles me the most is his commitment to restore public trust (presumably by demonstrating good character, ethics and behavior). Not only did Prentice stand behind Gord Dirks who bumped William Reid school’s request for 2 portables up to the top of the list and was blasted for it by the Ethics commissioner, he’s doing it again with Danielle Smith. Prentice and Smith were in High River this weekend to relaunch her career as a PC MLA. Prentice’s presence served as a huge endorsement of her candidacy for the PC nomination, then he announced an additional $20 million in flood relief in order to close out all the claims by the summer. Then Danielle announces on Facebook that her focus as PC MLA for High River is to advocate for “a resolution of all outstanding Disaster Recovery Program claims, ensuring the right proposal is chosen for the diversion on the Highwood River, and getting a commitment for a regional water pipeline to ensure Okotoks’ continued growth”. The not so subtle message? I’ve got the ear of the Premier, elect me and you’ll get everything you need here. And guess what, that’s exactly what the Mayor of High River said. It doesn’t matter who your MLA is as long as they’ve got clout and they only have clout if they’re PCs. It’s more of the same old, same old.

  3. ABCanuck says:

    I may be stating the obvious but Ms. Soapbox is a treasure and we are fortunate to benefit from her exceptional writing and commentary, her personal commitment, involvement and dedication to the pursuit of good, accountable government, and her clear, level-headed thinking as exemplified by work such as contained in this, another outstanding blog.

    Commenter Julie Ali writes “Mr. Prentice (in my mind) is simply wasting our time until he goes back to the federal party as the next Harper.” I couldn’t agree more, having resented Prentice’s involvement in Alberta politics from day one for exactly that reason.

    Frank McKenna said Jim Prentice was from the progressive side of the Conservatives and that he has “good EQ” (emotional quotient, emotional intelligence). If that’s the case, I am still waiting to see the evidence.

    • Thank you ABCanuck! You can include me in the camp that believes that Prentice is using the premier’s job to launch himself into the PMO’s office. He’s got two reasons to call an early election (1) the opposition parties are less prepared than they would be a year from now and (2) the timing aligns with the federal election cycle. Here’s how I see it: Harper calls the federal election in spring 2015, Prentice calls the provincial election in spring/summer 2015. Harper and Prentice rule for approximately four years. Then Harper (or whoever) calls the next federal election and Prentice gracefully steps away from provincial politics to serve at the federal level. He’ll make this sacrifice because the country needs him and it’s his duty to serve all Canadians, not just Albertans. On the upside, we’ll get a new premier, hopefully it won’t be Danielle Smith!

  4. David says:

    Terrific & helpful for many of us in the trenches- Raj has major announcement today See you Wednesday D

    Sent from my iPhone


  5. Dennis Baresco says:

    Since most of the mainstream media and politicians – national and provincial – have been consistently demonizing all taxes, deficits and borrowing (even though many objective economists have proved that deficits are not a problem under the proper circumstances), while insisting that cutting spending (i.e. “austerity”) is the cure-all, it’s small wonder that 43% would agree with cuts even though they haven’t given any thought to other options and why they think that. Where to cut? Why, those overpaid and underworked civil servants, is their answer – again, without any information about the facts of that. The one thing no one seems to mention – certainly not the media and politicians – is the most obvious: stop with the lowest royalty rate of any fossil fuel producing state and start getting at least a fair return. Of course, Peter Lougheed said that more than once a few years ago and was roundly ridiculed by his party.
    It should be noted that the 5 priorities in Prentice’s Throne Speech, like all broad political statements, are not meant to be believed; they’re simply meant to be warm and fuzzy and allow the masses to live contentedly – albeit, temporarily – in the bubble.

    • Great point Dennis. Too many people don’t give any thought to other options and this works in the government’s favour. Redford’s government made a big deal of the fact that the public sector received defined benefit (DB) pensions whereas most of the private sector only got defined contribution pensions (DC) or, in fact, no pensions. The implication was that the public sector was being greedy. I have personal experience in this area. When I was with Nova Corporation the company phased us out of DB pensions, but topped up the people who would be most impacted to make sure they were kept whole. My last employer did not offer pensions at all, however it paid everyone an additional 17% to 24% more than the market for their positions so that they could buy their own pensions. The government did not put these options on the table, preferring instead to pit Albertans against the public sector. Shameful treatment of the poor souls who have to work for this self-serving crew.

  6. anonymous says:

    Serious looking women and men in suits always says seriousness. Maybe we should drop the seriousness schtick for a while and just become human again?

  7. Jim Lees says:

    Great post Susan…..I’m just wondering what you have against ducks, roosters, chickens, etc. why not sacrifice a couple of retiring politicians. We have lots of those, and what better service could they offer on their way out. The idea may not fly, as most are too weighted down with ‘transition’ payments….

  8. Brilliant suggestion Jim! So far seven PC MLAs declared they’re not seeking re-election (Horner, Griffiths, Horne, Goudreau, Leskiw, Kennedy-Glans and Jablonski). More than enough to staff many many trial balloons. Given the concern that they’ll be too weighted down with “transition” payments I suggest we strip them of these payments for their own safety.

  9. Jackie B says:

    I have basically given up on Alberta. I used to be proud saying I live in Alberta, but all I can say now is that I live in the slums as where I live is not PC strong. Unfortunately other ridings are being treated the same way, even PC ridings. (Healthcare, Education, Infrastructure, etc, etc, etc.) have basically all been put on hold or slashed so there is enough funds in the trough to cover the salaries, perks, bonuses, severances, pensions and all the other hidden goodies the PC employees get. Unless you are in a new MLA riding, don’t expect anything. These funds are helping the new PC MLA’s to butt kiss the constituents so they get voted in.

    I very much agree with many of the posts and comments voiced on this post. I still deep in my heart feel that Smith and Prentice were players in the PC game that was set up when Smith and cronies started WR.. Smith as WR leader was to scoop up the non PC supporters, give them hope, get rid of people that became unpopular in the PC party, then cross the floor when the time was right with the extra 11 seats so democracy and any opposition wont be there and the PC’s have total control. Prentice has shown his true colors. Make promises that sound good to gain Albertans trust. Then don’t follow through. Let your ministers and MLA’s do and spend what ever they want and add it onto the debt. Then tell the john and jane Albertan that times are tuff and they either have to cut back on services, infrastructure or tax and fee us more than we already are. I also have my doubts that this extra the govt will rake in will be going toward needed necessities.

  10. Jackie, well said. And the saga continues as Prentice prepares to make war on the unions.

  11. Jackie B says:

    It is Feb 20, 2015 and we have seen about a zillion trial balloons float by and then get retracted soon after as a concept when Albertans erupt. The healthcare fees are a good example of this In Campbells speech, he made it sound like a for sure thing. He also said Albertans want it….What Albertans was he talking to? If so many wanted it, there would not have been the eruption against it which made Jimbo retract it the next day and say it was a (concept.) The superboard concept is not sitting to well either due to the fact of how Albertans got screwed last time. That board was never monitored or audited so they got away with hundreds of thousands of $ for not allowed expenses and goodies. Prentice won’t look after his own extravagances EG: 4.7 million for his office staff and then there is the uppercrust bureaucrats getting paid a fortune to do nothing besides have their name on a list as a board member. Prentice is doing his damndest to stop any paths that can check or question his spending. AHS has shown its spending sloppiness as well…Janet Davidson as DM at $640,000 plus perks a year and I haven’t seen her do much of anything and then there is Vicki Kaminski who gets about $550,000. Her job was to streamline and cut costs in AHS. Then the WR came across the $875,000 cell phone bill sorta makes you wonder what Vicki does for her $550,000 paycheck. If Prentice is trying to invoke trust from Albertans, he is not doing a very good job as these things are showing themselves as blunt as a brick wall and he asks us for more money .

    I heard about Prentice and Campbell doing their spiel about how broke Alberta is, A reporter from the audience asked If Alberta is so broke, how can we afford a not needed election right now? Prentices response was to head for the door with Campbell in front of him. No answer given.

    • Jackie, the waste and incompetence at AHS never ceases to amaze me. The latest news on the cell phone debacle is that AHS is going to issue an RFP for cellphone service and ask bidders to provide “finance staff” who’ll be tasked with spotting big invoices that may indicate abuse of the new policy.

      In other words, in an organization that has over 100,000 employees, there isn’t a single person who can check to make sure no one is incurring excessive charges or downloading stuff they shouldn’t be downloaded. This is nonsense. I’ve worked for large and smaller organizations. Our phone provider provided phone service, we didn’t ask it to provide audit services. We did that ourselves.

      Even the government has “wireless account co-ordinators” whose job includes checking phone bills for excessive usage and collecting money from government employees when there’s been abuse.

      But hey, it’s not their money is it.

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