Braid: Alison Redford should recall promise to balance budget – Alberta premier is waffling on debt, deficits

By Don Braid, Calgary Herald March 7, 2013

EDMONTON ­— Premiers usually keep their mouths shut the day before a budget is released. Not Alison Redford.

On Wednesday, the premier not only gave a preview, but tried to radically alter an entire province’s understanding of debt and deficits.

They are not bad things, she suggested. In fact, they can be actively good. To fixate on them in a negative way is downright backward.

“We have seen for the last 15 years in this province what I think is a parochial debate about words like debt and deficit,” she said after a speech to the Edmonton Chamber of Commerce.

Former premier Ralph Klein, who certainly did fixate on debt, “was a great premier but he was premier more than 20 years ago,” Redford said.

Actually, he remained premier until only six years ago, when the province had no debt and was awash in surplus cash. That was the state of Alberta when he walked out of office in December 2006.

But hey, forget about that.

In the modern era we embrace debt because, well, everybody else does. It’s the worldly thing to do.

“Times have changed,” says Redford. “Our province has changed, international markets have changed … the way that the world thinks about investing in infrastructure is different now.”

I’m not sure the world has changed all that much, but something sure has.

Redford and her PCs have changed their tune. They have learned to love the very thing they hated only a few short months ago.

On budget day in 2012, they sounded a great deal like Klein, boasting that they were about to eliminate deficits and keep Alberta debt-free.

“We are forecasting a return to a balanced budget in the 2013-14 fiscal year, as our Premier (Redford) committed, with a projected surplus of nearly $1 billion,” then-treasurer Ron Liepert said proudly on Feb. 9, 2012.

He added an astonishing prediction: “By 2014-15, we are forecasting a surplus of $5.2 billion.”

None of that will happen now.

The 2013-14 deficit, to be unveiled Thursday, will likely be more than $3 billion.

The fiscal year ending March 31 is also set to clock in with a deficit above $3 billion. Any surplus in the projected bonanza year, 2014-15, seems unlikely.

What is certain, though, is that a growing billow of debt will flow from Redford’s decision to borrow heavily for infrastructure.

So what we’ve got here, folks, is a classic broken promise. There are two ways to deal with that — try again to keep the promise, or pretend it was never such a big deal in the first place.

If the second option is chosen, it can be helped along by ridiculing the people who believed in the promise, making them look old-fashioned and out of touch, suggesting they have to catch up with the sophisticated world out there.

Asked about this, NDP Leader Brian Mason didn’t bother with deep analysis. He just said: “She sounds like a snob to me.”

The problem with Redford’s line is that people do have memories. They’ll remember that she promised to balance the books both as a leadership candidate and a campaigning premier.

Many voters — including some who abandoned Wildrose at the end of last year’s election campaign— took comfort in that pledge. They knew Redford was big on maintaining services, but also counted on her to get rid of deficits.

Now, circumstances have changed.

The government is poor while the economy thrives. And the premier reacts not only by changing policy — her own policy — but by saying the whole debt and deficit thing was a “parochial debate” all along.

Whatever they have in the budget, this is one strange way to introduce it.

Don Braid’s column appears regularly in the Herald

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