Election uncertainty creates flux across political landscape

The new year is upon us and with it comes guarantees of many political challenges and antics.

Parliamentarians are set to return to Ottawa Jan. 26.

The prime minister continues to insist the country is not headed toward a spring election, a commitment most recently reiterated in a year-end interview with CBC journalist Peter Mansbridge.

Still, Stephen Harper’s insistence appears to have done little to quash the early election rumours, fast tracked by heightened pundit and political speculation the government may be planning to table a budget upon its return. Sources have said such actions would almost guarantee a spring election.

However, the fate of the federal election also has an impact at the political level.

Saskatchewan is set to have a provincial election in October 2015, and it’s worth noting that the provincial legislature has already passed a decision to defer the election until 2016 if Ottawa waits until the fall to send Canadians to the polls.

No such decision has been passed in Alberta, where the political landscape continues to be refashioned. The recent defection of nine Wildrose members, including former party leader Danielle Smith, has drawn sharp public criticism. The province’s speaker has said the remaining five Wildrose members will continue to serve as the official opposition, but the move has once again rendered the provincial legislature without an effective opposition.

A cabinet shuffle is expected any day, meaning all eyes are on premier Jim Prentice to see whether any of the Wildrose members will be granted a spot in the new premier’s inner circle. Sources close to the Progressive Conservatives have said Smith had been promised a seat as the province’s deputy premier if she could successfully merge the Wildrose executive and all of the party’s current MLAs with the PCs. Having failed to deliver, it is unclear whether she will still sit at the cabinet table.

Easing public anger over his decision to accept the nine Wildrose members is not the only challenge Prentice faces as a new year begins. Falling oil prices have already triggered warnings of sharp production declines by major oil and gas companies in the province, many of whom have already said major layoffs are inevitable.

The current political and economic landscape has many Albertans looking for any indication the province is heading toward an early provincial election, which likely depends on actions in Ottawa. No premier wants to be in the midst of a provincial election while a federal election is underway.

Falling oil prices are guaranteed to be a political hurdle in 2015.

Both the provincial and national economies depend on revenues generated from the natural resource sector, and budgets will need to be amended to respond to the recent oil slump. It’s a challenge neither the prime minister nor the country’s premiers were likely expecting, especially in an election year.

The economic punch of falling oil prices is undeniable. The latest estimates show that the Alberta and Canadian economies both take a $1 billion hit every time oil drops $5 a barrel.

However, federal agriculture minister Gerry Ritz is one minister who isn’t as concerned by falling oil prices. In a year-end interview with iPolitics, Ritz said lower oil prices are generally good news for the agriculture sector. Farmers will likely see lower fertilizer and machinery costs because of the slump at the pumps, he added.

Others in the industry have also quietly suggested that the expected layoffs in the oil industry could ease some of the labour pressures being felt in the agricultural sector, although most warn that it won’t be enough to solve the ongoing labour crunch.

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