This column appeared in today’s edition of the Saint City News.
What were they thinking?
What were Premier Ed Stelmach and Treasury Board President Lloyd Snelgrove thinking, that is, when they shot off their mouths within hours of one another, musing about a return of the Tory good old days, when Ralph Klein kicked the slats out of public employees, rolled back their wages five per cent and sent thousands packing?
As astonished commentators began observing within moments of their twin pronouncements hitting the media on Jan. 15, that was then and this is now.
That is, while the judgment of history is likely to be that Klein’s radical deficit-fighting cuts in the mid-1990s did little good for Alberta, the state of the world economy at the time was such that the harm they did was restricted to their direct victims in the public service and the province’s health care system.
But even hinting at laying off thousands of government workers or rolling back their pay in the midst of the current worldwide economic meltdown, let alone actually doing such a thing, is like playing with matches beside a leaking gas line.
Stateside, banks are collapsing, corporate bailouts are in the billions and the new president is talking about trillion-dollar deficits lasting decades. Abroad, whole countries seem to be imploding – or, like Iceland, slipping beneath the North Atlantic. Here at home, our Conservative federal government is desperately seeking schemes to get us all spending like normal consumers again.
Around the world, economists are advising governments to spend, spend, spend – never mind the deficits – to get us the heck out of an impending depression.
So what do our leaders here in the Conservative heartland do? With two neatly timed fell swoops, the most powerful men in the Alberta cabinet start by scaring the beejeepers out of more than 100,000 Alberta public employees! “We may go back to the same strategies we used in the early 1990s,” mused Mr. Stelmach. Concessions, cuts and worse must be considered, said Mr. Snelgrove.
Since then, the premier’s reassurances have hardly been reassuring. Example: “I never used the word cuts.”
If you think a government employee, teacher, nurse or jail guard is now going to go out and buy a new car or a flat-screen TV without some pretty serious soul searching, think again.
Never mind that just weeks ago Mr. Stelmach was telling us to stay calm, everything was hunky-dory, the financial crisis notwithstanding. That was before the price of a barrel of crude hit $38 on the way down. Now, fast enough to give you whiplash, they’re looking at a return to chasing medical professionals out of the province, reducing the civil service to near collapse, and blowing up hospitals? Please!
These pronouncements seemed so bizarre that mainstream journalists rushed to make excuses. It was just poor-mouthing on the eve of a federal-provincial conference, said some, a strategy to get federal bailout loot to come this way after a decade of bragging about how rich we are and how we don’t want to share. Others speculated it was a way to soften up hard-line Conservative supporters before scuttling Alberta’s silly ban on deficits, another relic of the Klein era.
Others were less kindly, taking the story where surely the premier doesn’t want it to go. Some suggested it was panic pure and simple. Some called it knee-jerk viciousness: when in doubt, kick a public servant. A few Albertans wondered aloud where all the oil money from the past decade had gone.
Worst of all, many Albertans laughed. The headline in a local daily didn’t say folks were trembling with terror before the mighty government, it read: TALK OF CUTS DRAWS SCORN. Scorn!
Never mind what they were thinking, a lot of Albertans seem to be saying. What were we thinking when we elected these guys?