Alberta Premier to reveal budget plans over airwaves: Stelmach's pre-taped speech will address strategy for balancing finances in timely fashion and touch on health care and seniors

Alberta Premier Ed Stelmach will take to the airwaves this week to deliver a plan to return the ailing province to a balanced budget in a "reasonable period of time."

The pre-taped speech, which will air across the province tomorrow night, comes as Mr. Stelmach faces threats both from the faltering economy, which has doubled provincial unemployment in a year, and newly emboldened political foes. With the upstart Wild Rose Alliance Party gaining traction - and, in a September by-election, a first legislative seat - and his own Conservative Party leadership up for review next month, political observers say the address is a pivotal one.

Mr. Stelmach has spent recent months "in the shadows looking bad," said Peter McCormick, a professor of political science at the University of Lethbridge. "He just has to step forward and be the guy. Mr. Alberta has to show up and reassure the party supporters that he's on top of it."
Mr. Stelmach taped segments of the 18-minute edited address at his office and home farm over the past few days, working to craft what aides promised is a "meaty" speech filled with specific new proposals.

"There's a four-point plan pointing the way forward to a balanced budget. It's clear and concise and comprehensive," said Tom Olsen, the Premier's spokesman. "Ed Stelmach's government has a plan to move forward."

With the plunge in oil and gas revenues driving the province to a nearly $7-billion deficit this year, the address will tilt heavily toward the economy. But, Mr. Olsen said, it will also touch on health care and seniors, a subject that has already generated heated debate after a leaked report pointed to the possible closing of 9,000 long-term care beds in the province.

"The Premier will underscore his commitment, as he has time and again, to a publicly funded health-care system," Mr. Olsen said.

But many expect Mr. Stelmach to use the provincewide pulpit to veer right, in hopes of using a fiscal-cutting agenda to take ground from the rising conservative Wildrose party, which elects a leader three days later.
"Mr. Stelmach grew up politically in the mid-nineties. He knows how to cut. He knows the success that can bring, or at least the perceived success," said Keith Brownsey, an associate professor of political science at Mount Royal University in Calgary. The rise in Wildrose popularity "allows him to do exactly that."

The possibility of a public-sector wage freeze or cuts to health and education, the government's biggest budget items, has already struck fear in those who lived through the austere days that former premier Ralph Klein used to wipe out the province's debt.

"We're afraid that the Stelmach government is considering a return to Klein-style cuts, even though that would clearly be a bad move, in that it would make a bad economic situation in the province much worse," said Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour.

Bold moves could be risky for Mr. Stelmach, who is still half a year from unveiling the province's next budget. Yet he may be keen to take a page from Mr. Klein, who launched a tradition of annual television addresses in 1994, just days before unveiling a cost-slashing budget.

Alberta at the time was facing a bulging debt and a multibillion-dollar deficit.

"We knew that a budget was coming that was going to be explosive. And so the calculation was made to get ahead of it," said Rod Love, who served as Mr. Klein's chief of staff.

A televised address only works if it is used to explain something new, he said.

"You have to have a reason to focus the debate," he said. "You just can't go on and say what you've been saying before."

Yet Mr. Stelmach may find himself limited by the fact that any dramatic change could reflect badly on his leadership, which began during the heady, free-spending boom that ended last summer.

"Ed's used up his first couple of years in office. He's running against his own record now," Prof. McCormick said. "He can't slash without taking responsibility for the things that are being slashed."

Globe and Mail, Tues Oct 13 2009
Byline: Nathan Vanderklippe

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