"If you will the end, you must will the means." Prime Minister Francis Urquhart, House of Cards (original British version)
Alberta politics looks like a replay of 1993, when premier Ralph Klein attacked the provincial budget deficit with an austerity program. In an economic sense, the challenge Premier Jim Prentice faces is easier than the one that confronted Mr. Klein. The 1993 deficit was larger in relative terms than today's deficit, the province had slipped into net debt, and interest payments were a higher proportion of the budget than they are now. Consequently, the reductions to the operating budget foreshadowed by Mr. Prentice – 5 per cent in nominal terms, 9 per cent in real terms – are smaller than the swingeing cuts enforced by Mr. Klein.
But if the economics are better for Mr. Prentice, some other factors are less favourable. The courts have revised the law of labour relations since 1993, making it impossible for the government to override existing collective agreements and impose salary reductions as Mr. Klein did. Now a government has to wait for a collective agreement to expire before seeking revision of the salary structure. Many existing contracts will extend for another year or two, increasing the inertia in the provincial budget. Immediate cuts will affect the volume of public services delivered more than the compensation of those who deliver them.
Also, the timing is more difficult for Mr. Prentice than for Mr. Klein. The latter won the Progressive Conservative leadership race in 1992, and a general election in 1993, by promising to deal with the fiscal emergency. Thus he could proceed in 1993 with a full term of office to achieve results. Albertans liked what they saw – once they got over the initial shock of austerity – and re-elected Mr. Klein with an increased majority in 1997.
Mr. Prentice, in contrast, did not run for the PC leadership on an austerity platform, and he became premier with only a year left until the next election, which under Alberta's semi-fixed election legislation should take place in spring, 2016. One year is not nearly enough time for an austerity program to show positive results, particularly in the new legal environment of collective bargaining. Economic conditions will probably seem worse in early 2016 than they are now, with an increase in unemployment, a decline in investment, reductions in public services, and a balanced budget not yet in sight.
Mr. Prentice's solution to this conundrum has been a masterpiece of political strategy. He weakened his main opposition by inducing Wildrose leader Danielle Smith and most of her caucus to join the PCs. Now he is hinting broadly that he will call an election this spring, a year earlier than prescribed by legislation, claiming that his austerity program will require a new mandate.
This is the most striking strategic coup in Canadian politics since Conservative prime minister Robert Borden won re-election in the midst of the First World War. Borden changed the electoral law to disenfranchise conscientious objectors while facilitating votes from servicemen and their wives; postponed the election for two years, from 1915 to 1917; and split the opposition by inducing many Liberal caucus members to join his Unionist cabinet and caucus. Mr. Prentice hasn't changed eligibility requirements for voting, but otherwise he seems to be emulating Borden by manipulating the election date and splitting the opposition.
Mr. Prentice served for four years in Stephen Harper's federal cabinet. Mr. Harper, of course, is widely regarded as a Machiavellian strategist, the master of hardball politics; while Mr. Prentice was seen as a natural conciliator, a soft-hearted Red Tory. Ironically, Mr. Prentice is now executing a Machiavellian political strategy that matches anything Mr. Harper has ever done.
Such tough-minded resolve is essential for any head of government who wants to see an austerity program through to the end. Once you start giving in to the special pleading of aggrieved interest groups, it's all over. Mr. Prentice's approach may be a signal that, like Margaret Thatcher, he is "not for turning."
Tom Flanagan is a professor emeritus of political science and a distinguished fellow in the School of Public Policy, University of Calgary. He is a former campaign manager for conservative parties.