As if recession and depressed oil prices weren't bad enough, Premier Jim Prentice compounded his problems by seeming to blame his province's fiscal woes on Albertans, leading to a stiff public backlash and calls for an apology.
On Thursday, Alberta's opposition leaders said the Premier was insulting and condescending when he told a provincewide radio program that Albertans only had to "look in a mirror" to understand why the province is facing a budget deficit that could reach $7.5-billion this year.
"We all want to blame somebody for the circumstance we're in," Mr. Prentice said on Wednesday. "In terms of who is responsible we all need only look in the mirror. Basically all of us have had the best of everything and have not had to pay for what it costs."
For all of his troubles, Mr. Prentice's Tories remain prohibitive favourites in the Alberta election widely expected in April, after the bulk of Opposition Wildrose MLAs crossed the aisle to his party.
While Mr. Prentice has used similar language in the past, it was the first time he seemed to direct blame at individual Albertans. Opposition leaders were quick to point out that the Premier's party has ruled the province without interruption for nearly 44 years.
"That is a profoundly insulting comment to all Albertans," said NDP Leader Rachel Notley at the legislature. "I think there is no question that what this has revealed is an incredible level of arrogance. If this is what the Premier will say to Albertans now, six weeks before an election, heaven forbid what he'll say after an election."
Both Ms. Notley and the leader of Wildrose called on Mr. Prentice to apologize.
While announcing that the Tories will table a budget on March 26, two of Mr. Prentice's chief lieutenants said the Premier's comments were taken out of context. However, both admitted that they had not heard the interview, nor had they seen any reaction on social media. In the 12 hours before they spoke at a hastily called news conference on Thursday afternoon, a social media firestorm erupted around the Premier's comments, becoming the top trending Canadian subject on Twitter with the hashtag #PrenticeBlamesAlbertans.
"I don't know if Albertans are offended. Nobody's told me they're offended," said Finance Minister Robin Campbell. "I don't think it's a national conversation. I think it's blown out of proportion. I think that the Premier has made it very clear what he wants to do. He's passionate about this province. He's passionate about his kids. He's passionate about the future of this province."
Health Minister Stephen Mandel said that he can't help "what Twitter feeds do or don't do."
"I don't think you take it as looking in the mirror, because you look in the mirror you blame yourself," he said. "You look in the mirror and say, 'Gee, how can I help? I'm part of a great province and want to build a wonderful future.'"
Mr. Prentice came to power in mid-September, inheriting a party in seemingly dire straits after two Tory premierships ended in unpopular fashion. He now speaks nearly daily about his coming March budget – to prepare Albertans for pending deep cuts in spending, he says. He's yet to be clear on where residents will be asked to make sacrifices, but he has said the budget will be painful – prompting local columnists to call him "Grim Jim."
Thursday's backlash coincided with the launch of an advertising campaign by Alberta's public-sector unions to encourage the Premier to raise the province's taxes, currently the lowest in Canada by nearly every measure. A campaign video features the Premier, pictured with exaggerated eyebrows and aggressive pointing, looking into a mirror after being told to face the culprit for the province's woes.
Union officials say the video was finished weeks ago and the timing with Mr. Prentice's statements are a welcome coincidence.
While the Premier faced a public backlash early in his time in office over a proposal to empower school boards to ban gay-straight clubs, Mr. Prentice moved quickly then to contain the uproar. This time, opponents say Mr. Prentice's honeymoon is over.
The first of a number of polls expected before the province is plunged into a spring election was released in late February. According to independent pollster Janet Brown, the new numbers showed that Mr. Prentice was trailing the approval levels of his two Tory predecessors at this point in their terms of office.
"The Premier's support level is decent but he isn't enjoying the honeymoon previous Progressive Conservative leaders have had," said Ms. Brown, who added that the provincial Tories are still a "juggernaut."