Frank Luntz, famed political consultant to the Republican Party, said when it comes to political hot buttons “those who define the debate will determine the outcome.*
Given the mess Mr Prentice has made of the “Team Prentice” campaign he may want to give Mr Luntz a call.
Mr Prentice defined the debate in Election 2015 as…what, exactly? The “once in a generation” budget that strikes the right balance between the hatchet wielding Wildrose and the tax-and-spend NDP or the “under new management” premier who is remaking his own corrupt party?
Let’s take a closer look.
After months of dire warnings about the sorry state of Alberta’s economy Mr Prentice unveiled his “once in a generation” budget. It was a colossal flop.
The NDP said it didn’t go far enough because it shielded the corporate sector while burdening the rest of us with 59 new taxes and levies that would see Albertans pay more for less services. The majority of Albertans agreed.
The Wildrose said it went too far. Instead of increasing taxes they want Mr Prentice to focus on his bloated government. They said they’d save $10 billion in five years simply by eliminating jobs and cutting waste.
Mr Prentice said the NDP plan will kill jobs (the NDP shot back with an $89 million job creation plan) and that the Wildrose plan can’t be done. He wheeled out five, count ‘em, five, cabinet ministers to prove it. They said: the Wildrose plan can’t be done. Yeah, that helped.
Then Mr Prentice blinked.
He pledged to freeze public sector salaries until Alberta balances its budget (in three years if the sun, the moon and the stars align). So much for dealing respectfully with the unions. No raise for you, now beat it.
He promised “efficiency teams”, front line workers and industry reps (also known as consultants), to find ways to save money and cut regulations.
And he promised to reduce Alberta’s 320 agencies, boards and tribunals (ABCs) by 25%. We have 320 ABCs??? Who are they? What do they do? It’s not clear what criteria Mr Prentice will use to make the 25% cut, but I’d suggest looking at the utility or futility of their work.
By tacking to the right Mr Prentice allowed the Wildrose to define a critical element in the debate—who deserves the mandate to pursue an austerity budget.
“Under new management”
Mr Prentice says he’s changing the culture of government by setting a new tone at the top (if this sounds like corporate buzz-speak, that’s because it is).
Here’s how Mr Prentice’s government responds to hot button issues.
Schools: The government is embarking on the biggest school construction program in history. It invited the public to monitor its progress by checking out the list of schools under construction.
One small snag. The term “under construction” does not mean shovels in the ground.
The Opposition visited 38 schools the government identified as “under construction”. They found billboards in empty fields.
When pressed, Infrastructure Minister Bhullar said these fields are indeed schools “under construction” because when the government awards a construction contract it classifies the school as “under construction” for recordkeeping purposes.**
Long term care: Albertans understand that in order to reduce wait times in ER and for surgery it is necessary to move seniors out of acute care hospitals and into long term care facilities.
Health Minister Mandel announced 1500 new LTC beds, but when grilled by the Opposition, he couldn’t explain where these beds were, when they would be built, whether they were new beds or previously closed beds or where the money was coming from to staff them.***
Stalled legislation: The Education Act was passed in December 2012. It supports a new education policy that’s been in the works since 2008. It was drafted, debated and passed by the government and now sits on a shelf along with 55 other laws that have never been proclaimed into force. Why?
Mr Prentice says laws can be delayed because the regulations supporting them require public consultation. Uh huh. The government rolled through two and a half years and three different cabinet ministers…apparently no one can get this law off the ground.
Mr Prentice also said laws can be delayed because they conflict with the Criminal Code.****
Excuse me? Is Mr Prentice saying that his government will draft legislation, take it to the floor of the Legislature, debate it for days on end and after it is proclaimed, notice that, oops, it violates the Criminal Code?
Transparency and accountability: Mr Prentice promised to clean up government by setting the tone at the top. There would be no Mike Duffy expense report hi-jinks on his watch.
Unfortunately some of his ministers are tone deaf. They created a new “corporate events” expense category which, surprise, surprise, is not disclosed as a ministerial expense.****
Mr Prentice’s reaction? “Not me!!” Actually his exact words were “it predates me as the premier”.
In the six months since Mr Prentice took office he’s used the “not me” excuse to distance himself from everything from the government’s over reliance on royalty revenues to its decision to sink billions of dollars into the North West Upgrader.
Mr Prentice is defining the election debate as: “old PC government: not me; new PC government: me, me, me”.
Unfortunately for Mr Prentice Albertans know that he can’t hide from his government’s past mistakes. They also recognize that his “under new management” government is not responding to the tone at the top which is either missing or has fallen on deaf ears.
Consequently when Mr Prentice asks Albertans to “Choose Alberta’s Future” he’ll be surprised by the large number of Albertans who choose “not Prentice”.
*Words That Work, p 170
**Hansard, March 12, 2015, p 602
***Hansard, Mar16, 2015, p 626
****Calgary Herald, Apr 15, 2015, A4