Categories: Commentary

Corner turned?

Thankfully the talk of those endlessly sprouting green shoots has gone while the brief blather about bright lights being spotted has dimmed. Instead, Premier Rachel Notley confidently informs us that we have turned a corner in the province.

Of course this is the latest in a long line of dubious doublespeak foisted upon us over the last 12 months as we continue to slog through these depressing economic times.

But the problem with turning any corner is it doesn’t mean things are any better with such a direction change. What’s around the bend ahead might be the same as the long road already travelled or could actually turn out to be worse.

And the first, nervous peek around this particular corner shows we’re now on a street called Permian Parade with a giant billboard looming over us proclaiming in big, bold lettering: ‘Get your barrels of oil here – only $45.’

Yep, with our provincial budget merrily setting the benchmark at $55-a-barrel as the number on the incoming side of the ledger, the average from the first three months of this 2017-18 financial year is a worrying six bucks shy of that.

If that average holds for a year it would translate into an annual loss to the Treasury of about $1.8-billion. Scarier still, if the price continues to hover around the $45 mark for the next nine months we could end up looking at a deficit that might even make Treasurer Joe Ceci blink. Our ‘happy days will be here again’ fellow on the deck of the HMCS Alberta is already steering for a budget shortfall of over $10-billion, so the almost ludicrous number of $12,000,000,000 (gaze with despair at all those zeroes) could be in sight.

And sadly for us those Texas frackers down in the Permian Basin keep jacking up ever more rigs and pumping out more American oil as they continue to thumb their collective drill bits at whatever Saudi Arabia and its OPEC pals come up with to try and drag the price north of $50 again.

So with yet another debt rating agency warning that our provincial balance sheet – already projecting being $10.3-billion in the red with optimistic oil prices – Easy Street, if it actually exists in this tough neighbourhood, remains an elusive destination any time soon, despite what Notley would have us believe.

Oh but look, she says, those darned unemployment numbers dropped a bunch in June. True enough they did. On first glance that’s indeed welcome news, with the province-wide rate falling from 7.8 to 7.4 as employment rose by 7,500 jobs.

Dig a bit deeper and, once again, this corner hasn’t turned onto some gold-plated street. Full time employment – the sort that persuades people to buy big-ticket things such as homes and autos and plan for the future – actually dropped by 11,400. It was part-time work rising by 18,800 that did the trick. Meanwhile some people simply dropped out of the workforce altogether.

Still, more people are actually working at something than they were a month ago so perhaps we shouldn’t quibble too much.

But what exactly are these new jobs being created in the last month? The big three generators were Health Care and Social Assistance, (9,700); Educational Services, (5,200); and Public Administration, (2,600). So, we’re losing full time jobs and the vast majority of work that is being created is in some type of government paid employment where taxpayers foot the bill.

No wonder the debt agencies have a few doubts we’ve any credible plan to balance the provincial budget this side of the looking glass that once upon a time a young Alice stepped through.

Chris Nelson is a long-time journalist. His columns on Alberta politics run monthly in the St. Albert Gazette.

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