Alberta sitrep: Return of the Bitumen Bubble, sort of, rains on otherwise cheerful Prentice parade

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A little rain fell on Premier Jim Prentice’s parade yesterday, but the tune the was playing was still pretty cheerful. Below: union members tune up to celebrate the demise of Bill 46 yesterday by singing Solidarity Forever this morning.

Just when you think you’re finding your way out of the woods, there’s that damned Bitumen Bubble again.

This time, it’s crude oil prices that are declining – or, as they say in journalese, the official language of the Internet, “plummeting.”

This is handy for conservatives once they’re elected and want to cut the crap out of public services they promised to protect, but not so good in the lead-up to an election during the phase when conservative governments of all stripes go into a tax-and-spend-liberal-spree mode and shower dollars on electors.

The special problem facing newly selected Progressive Conservative Premier Jim Prentice out here on the western edge of the Great Aspen Parklands is that his principal opponent in the upcoming Oct. 27 mini-election, in which he hopes to get his own place in the Legislature and a couple more for his two unelected cabinet members, is another conservative party

Before Oct. 27 and certainly before the next general election, the Wildrose Party under would-be premier Danielle Smith will scream if the budget isn’t balanced, and large numbers of cherry picking voters will grow surly and disagreeable if it is, leastways if that means their particular enthusiasms aren’t fully funded.

Imagine how much easier things would be for Mr. Prentice’s PCs if the official Opposition party were the NDP! Well, New Democrats will be working on that this weekend in Edmonton, but in the meantime the premier is just going to have to figure out a way to live with the cranky deficit scolds from the Wildrose opposition who don’t have the disadvantage of having to actually run the place at the same time as they’re trying to live down fired premier Alison Redford’s gruesome reputation.

It’s always astonishing to me that conservative politicians – who supposedly have the inside track on thinking like business people – can’t figure out that commodity prices are cyclical. In other words, this week’s oil-prices-are-too-low crisis can turn over night in to an oil-prices-are-too-high crisis, and Mr. Prentice most certainly hopes it does.

Meanwhile, a new public opinion poll by ThinkHQ Public Affairs suggests Mr. Prentice’s PCs are enjoying a bit of a honeymoon bounce – although not necessarily where they need it the most for the four upcoming by-elections, three of which are in Calgary and one here in Edmonton.

ThinkHQ President Marc Henry’s take Tuesday on these numbers was that “Tory fortunes have turned sharply positive” and, moreover, “the momentum shift is in the Tories’ favour.”

ThreeHundredEight.com author Eric Grenier’s analysis of the same numbers yesterday, however, was that while the poll shows the Prentice PCs are closer to the Wildrose popularity numbers than they’ve been for a while, the Wildrose is doing well enough in Calgary it will be hard for the government to win all four seats.

So, from the PC perspective, this close to four crucial and highly symbolic by-elections was probably not the right moment for the media to start chanting gloom and doom about oil prices at the shocking thought of oil descending to a mere $82 per barrel.

Meanwhile, also yesterday, without any fanfare whatsoever, the government quietly issued a proclamation repealing the Redford Government’s draconian Bill 46. That law – technically known as the Public Service Salary Restraint Act – would have enabled the government to order the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees back to work with a truly crappy contract had not the Alberta Court of Queen’s Bench intervened last February and granted the union an injunction blocking the law’s application.

The court’s scathing ruling – which excoriated the Redford government for bargaining in bad faith and other labour relations sins – blew the government’s entire strategy for dealing with its public service unions to smithereens.

In a way, the repeal of Bill 46 is meaningless – a negotiated deal with AUPE after the injunction was issued having effectively rendered it moot.

Nevertheless, it can hardly have been unintended that one of the few remaining relics of Ms. Redford’s bizarre anti-labour legislative agenda was tossed over the side the day before AUPE’s 38th annual convention was scheduled to start. That meeting will commence at 9 this morning with 800 or so AUPE members belting out Solidarity Forever.

Mr. Prentice’s hope, it is said here, must have been that the symbolism of this will remind unionized public employees of the dangers of voting for an even more conservative party than the PCs.

However, still remaining on the law books, sort of, is the odious Bill 45 – the Public Sector Services Continuation Act, which effectively banned free speech by all Albertans if they happened to feel like advocating a public service strike.

This bill was given Royal Assent on the same day as Bill 46 – Dec. 11, 2013, another December day that shall live in infamy – but was never proclaimed by the chicken-hearted Redford Tories, presumably to make it harder for the courts to get their hands on its self-evidently unconstitutional restrictions on free expression.

With Bill 46 on the floor where it belongs, one hopes Mr. Prentice will soon drop his party’s other remaining legislative shoe as well.

This post also appears on Rabble.ca.
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