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Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.
Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason.

opinion

No round of applause for Joe Ceci’s Alberta budget performance Add to ...

There is quiet and then there is country-church-in-the-dead-of-night quiet. And that kind of silence, when you are an Alberta Finance Minister addressing a business audience, speaks volumes.

It was Joe Ceci’s job on Monday to sell the Calgary Chamber of Commerce on the merits of the budget he tabled last week. It was a dreadful performance. By all accounts charming and personable, a salesman Mr. Ceci is not. Then again, even P.T. Barnum would have found flogging this fiscal plan, to this group, a miserable and hopeless undertaking.

This appearance by the finance minister before the chamber is an annual rite. Out of respect alone, you can usually count on the crowd to find a few things during the speech for which to applaud. Not this time. Not once. And that tells you everything you need to know about how business people regard the economic course the NDP has charted for Alberta.

They hate it.

This is not a crowd that despises what the New Democrats are doing based on purely ideological grounds. There were certainly folks in the room on Monday who voted NDP in the last election. Remember, the party took 15 of the city’s 25 seats. The business community had been keeping an open mind about this government and its economic strategy – until last week.

Not any more. Any good faith that existed between the corporate crowd and the provincial government evaporated the instant Mr. Ceci unveiled a future full of debt with few plans to begin reducing it in any meaningful way. Despite all the talk about diversification, the economy will continue to rely on oil to fuel its economic destiny – and if the forecasts for bitumen royalties are off, even by a little, this province will be in real trouble.

The people in the room Monday all know how to read a balance sheet, perhaps better than Mr. Ceci. And when they look at the government’s, they see red, and lots of it. They see accumulated debt exceeding $71-billion in two years’ time – from less than $20-billion when the NDP took over in 2015. They see $6.3-billion in borrowing just to keep the lights on, which is usually a sign of a business in trouble.

Mr. Ceci might have engendered some sympathy for the economic challenge confronting him had he done something, anything, that exhibited real restraint. But the budget didn’t seem to include any of that. Instead of cutting the number of government workers there are, the NDP added 2,000 positions to the payroll. Who does that when they are amassing debt at historic levels?

The Finance Minister talks about needing to get off the roller-coaster existence that is living off the vagaries of the oil and gas industry, by broadening the economy. And yet, there may not be a single person alive who does a poorer job of explaining just what the government is doing to achieve this. Beyond some tax credits, it sure doesn’t sound as if there is much.

While the NDP still has two years before it has to face voters, the province’s economic blueprint covering that period was laid out in last week’s budget. It is flawed enough to easily endanger the NDP’s re-election chances.

It is worth noting that a day earlier, in the same hotel in which Mr. Ceci’s budget talk to the chamber was greeted with stony silence, Jason Kenney held his first official news conference as leader of the Progressive Conservative party and prospective head of a new, unified free-enterprise coalition.

As Mr. Kenney spoke, it became evident by the second that he regarded Mr. Ceci’s budget as if it was manna from heaven. It was just the type of bloated, debt-drenched fiscal plan against which he could easily imagine himself campaigning. And he is a formidable campaigner.

In a three-day span, politics in Alberta dramatically changed. Mr. Ceci’s budget accounted for a part of that, and Mr. Kenney’s election as PC leader is the other element. In two years, people may look back at these events as the point around which the province’s modern political history was irrevocably altered.

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Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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