After a three-month break, Members of Alberta’s Legislative Assembly will gather today in Edmonton to start the spring sitting.
The commencement of this year’s first sitting will be unusual in that it will lack the traditional pomp and circumstance that comes with a Speech from the Throne. Lieutenant Governor Donald Ethell will not be invited to deliver a traditional Speech from the Throne today. The lack of Throne Speech or accompanying flagship legislation will mean a focus on the provincial budget, to be tabled on March 7. This, of course, is a deliberate move by the Tories.
Finance Minister Doug Horner will table the provincial government’s 2013/2014 budget on Thursday, and many political watchers are wondering what the document will include.
Over the past two months, Minister Horner and Premier Alison Redford have managed to communicate that Alberta has a revenue problem, a pipeline problem (also known as the unfortunately named ‘Bitumen Bubble’), and finally a spending problem.
Over the past week, numerous groups, including the Parkland Institute, the Conference Board of Canada, and the Alberta Federation of Labour, have released reports and survey’s demonstrating the need to reform Alberta’s revenue system.
The Premier mused about tax increases, and then ruled them out. All these mixed signals will make this week’s budget announcement a highly watched spectacle.
The continuation of the sitting also means that a handful of private members bills left over from last year’s sitting will return to the Assembly floor for debate this spring. These bills were introduced last year by opposition and backbench government MLAs.
This will be the second sitting of the Assembly since Edmonton-Mill Creek MLA Gene Zwozdesky was selected as Speaker by his peers. While generally seen as a fair chairman of the Assembly, Speaker Zwozdesky was highly criticized for ruling that Premier Redford did not mislead the Assembly over last year’s tobacco-gate scandal.
Watch Premier Redford focus on her strengths, like advocating on the national stage for a Canadian energy plan and for opening new markets for Alberta’s oil – like the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. As demonstrated throughout her first year in office, Premier Redford is much more effective at being a provincial advocate than being a provincial politician.
Do not expect to hear cabinet ministers or government MLAs make many comments about the fiascos that wreaked havoc for the Tories last fall. Ongoing investigations by Chief Elections Officer O. Brian Fjeldheim, retired Justice John Vertes, ethics commissioner Neil Wilksonson, and Information and Privacy Commissioner Jill Clayton will give the Tories a legitimate excuse to say “no comment.”
Will the Wildrose drive the agenda?
In the fall sitting of the Assembly, the newly minted Wildrose Official Opposition ran circles around the large Tory majority. It seemed like every day Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and Airdrie MLA Rob Anderson would have a new scandal or leaked documents to throw at the Tories like a live grenade.
Mirroring the tactics of the federal Conservatives in Ottawa, the Wildrose have brought a more aggressive and hyper-partisan approach than Albertans are used to from their opposition parties.
The official opposition launched a new website and series of radio ads to coincide with the budget debate, asking for Albertans feedback on the fiscal situation. While it is hard to fault the official opposition for their outreach, it is difficult to imagine the Wildrose will change their conservative ideological bent based on this mini-public relations campaign.
Three years ahead of the next election, a new online poll released by ThinkHQ shows the Wildrose leading the Tories 36% to 28%. The New Democrats and Liberals were distant from the pack at 16% and 13%. While the poll should be taken with a grain of salt, the mixed messages about provincial finances, recent conflict with Alberta’s teachers and uber-popular Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi are not likely working to help the Tories’ cause.
Lost in the fray during the fall sitting, these two parties need to remind Albertans that they are still there. Can the New Democrats and former official opposition Liberals succeed in reasserting themselves in the Assembly? I would not count them out.
The four-MLA NDP caucus just finished their province-wide “Broken Promises Tour”, highlighting what leader Brian Mason claims are a string of broken promises from the Tories since last year’s election. Liberal leader Raj Sherman has come out with a string of media releases criticizing the Tories.
Both parties hope that a provincial budget harsh on public services will remind Albertans of the differences between their parities and the governing Tories. The centre-rightish Liberal Party saw a mass exodus of supporters vote for Premier Redford’s Tories in last year’s election to block the Wildrose from forming government. It worked too well for the Tories, leaving the Liberals with a small five MLA caucus.
Last fall, the Wildrose Official Opposition danced circles around the governing Tories. Daily attacks from the Wildrose left the Tories stumbling and stammering to respond. New faces in the Premier’s Communications Office have already brought a more aggressive and partisan tone to their media releases and responses to opposition criticism online. This sitting, expect to see the Tories to counter the Wildrose attacks by taking a more aggressive approach to defending Premier Redford’s political agenda. That means dirt, mud, and more dirt.