Thomson: Increasingly grim Jim delivers bleak news about Alberta’s budget

Last year he was “Diamond Jim,� the politician-turned-banker-turned-politician who won the Progressive Conservative leadership race.

This year, the sparkle has faded along with the price of oil.

Diamond Jim has become Grim Jim, the bearer of a seemingly endless supply of bad news.

On Wednesday, he called journalists together to explain the government’s fiscal problems are so grave that we are facing what amounts to a nine-per-cent cut in government spending in the upcoming provincial budget.

Prentice didn’t deliver that particular piece of bad news; he brought in Finance Minister Robin Campbell to explain just how miserable things are getting.

“We’re probably in the neighbourhood of nine-per-cent reductions for (the fiscal year) 15-16 in government spending moving forward, and going on to the next years out,� said Campbell, adding the government is facing a $7-billion shortfall in each of the next three years. “Three years of doing nothing would put us almost $20 billion in debt on the operating side.�

The actual mathematical cut to spending this year will be five per cent, but when you factor in a four-per-cent rise in population plus inflation the reduction amounts to a nine-per-cent cut compared to business as usual.

And as Prentice will tell anyone who’ll listen, the government is not doing business as usual.

Prentice isn’t even doing politics as usual.

He told reporters he is unilaterally ordering government members of an all-party legislative committee to reverse a decision they made Tuesday giving $540,000 to the office of the province’s auditor general, Merwan Saher.

Odds are you’ve never heard of the Standing Committee on Legislative Offices, or any of the other standing committees, but they are important aspects of our parliamentary system.

They’re made up of members from all parties and operate independently from government and without interference from the premier’s office. At least, that’s what is supposed to happen.

The reality of Alberta politics is the premier regularly uses the government’s majority on all committees to push through the government’s agenda. Premiers usually at least pay lip service to an important aspect of the committee’s work: the ability of individual MLAs from all parties to meet together (usually very respectfully, unlike the adversarial nature of question period) and make important decisions affecting public policy.

At the risk of sounding politically naive, the legislative committees really should be able to operate without interference from the premier’s office.

In 2012, then-premier Alison Redford stepped on the toes of a standing committee when she declared unilaterally she would suspend the “overly generous� transition allowances of MLAs. But Redford was noted for missteps, behaving at times like a bull in the political china shop.

Up until now, Prentice seemed to be more sure-footed — and more respectful of parliamentary protocols.

That’s why reporters were initially not sure what to make of his comment that he’ll make sure the committee will reverse its decision. Was he really being so politically crass as to suggest he’ll ride roughshod over a decision made by a legislative committee?

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