PHOTOS: Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci, basking in the fiscal sunshine. Below Joe: Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, like Mr. Ceci, a New Democrat; Opposition UCP Leader Jason Kenney; and Alberta Party Leader Stephen Mandel.
In one regard, Alberta’s NDP Government and its principal Opposition parties are in agreement about how a Canadian province should deal with a recession.
As the discussion surrounding yesterday’s third quarter fiscal update illustrates, they all think you should do something. That something, however, is quite different.
Since its election in May 2015, the NDP has taken the position the government should maintain public services, take modest measures to stimulate the economy (too modest, some might say) including investing in infrastructure, create circumstances in which the province’s legacy industry can thrive despite low international commodity prices, and try to diversify the province’s single-note economy.
Inherent in that strategy is not worrying too much about the deficit, while trying to whittle it down.
Since its election loss in may 2015, Alberta’s conservative Opposition – which in that short period has done business under at least four separate labels, at times simultaneously – has demanded the only policy conservatives have in their tickle trunk when conservatives are not in power: austerity.
Austerity, that is, in the guise of lower taxes, reduced public services, public sector job insecurity, and the panoply of predictable policies that set the stage for privatization.
Of course, the principal Opposition party, the United Conservative Party led by Jason Kenney, would argue maintaining public services is just maintaining union jobs. Not terribly factual, but a nice hunk of red meat for the UCP base.
On balance, Alberta’s Third Quarter financial results released yesterday by Finance Minister Joe Ceci, suggest the NDP strategy has worked – or, at least, is working.
We are coming out of a recessionary period with the economy intact, essential public services operating properly and all signs pointing to steady, even dramatic, recovery – including the fastest forecast economic growth rate in Canada and the biggest GDP increase in Alberta since 2014.
Jobs are back up – driven mostly by private-sector growth. (Indeed, public sector employment in all levels of government shrank by roughly 6,500 jobs in the quarter.) Unemployment is down. Consumer spending and confidence are up. Oil and gas investments are much higher than expected.
The provincial deficit is down significantly – important, although as we can see in the United States nowadays, deficits only actually matter to conservatives when conservatives are not in power.
So, on the facts, Mr. Ceci’s statement yesterday makes sense: “Alberta’s economic growth and broad-based recovery show that we made the right choice in the face of the worst recession in a generation,” he said. “Our choice to invest in Albertans, build infrastructure and carefully find savings – without firing thousands of teachers and nurses – is paying off.”
Of course, the claim of the Opposition, now doing business as the UCP and the Alberta Party, is that everything would be brighter, bigger and better if we’d only done things their way – the austerian way. In other words, that we’re where we’re at in spite of the NDP, not because of it.
You can quote a bunch of boring old economists, but there’s really no way to prove them wrong, in particular to the satisfaction of the conservative base, because they live in an alternative faith-based reality.
Well, give the Alberta party their due. They’re small, they’ve only had former Edmonton mayor Stephen Mandel as leader for a single day, and they’re trying to reinvent themselves as the new Progressive Conservative Party, but at least they’re willing to promise an alternative budget to give voters a hint of what they’d do in power.
Mr. Kenney’s UCP? Not a chance. They’re not telling, one suspects, because the effect of announcing their real plans before an election would be potentially toxic. Instead, they can have Mr. Kenney’s still-disgraced pal Derek Fildebrandt, the Sundre Shooter, set up some targets to see what attracts fire.
It’s been said in this space before (and hotly denied by conservative readers) that a lot of Albertans are secretly relieved to have gone through this recession with the NDP at the helm, because they know in their hearts it would have far been more painful without them.
But it is quite possible to believe contradictory things at once – we all do, on some topics – so the same people may turn around and vote for austerity, as long as it seems to be theoretical and far in the future, because they believe we “need” it.
In that regard, it’s quite likely Mr. Kenney’s angry rhetoric in response to the NDP’s seemingly modest success is working just fine with many voters, as recent polling has suggested.
Still, if voters are paying attention, yesterday’s financial results were certainly not bad news for Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democrats.
Things could be better, of course. But neither the NDP nor the UCP is likely do what Alberta really needs to eliminate its deficits and smooth out the peaks and valleys that have made Alberta’s economy so vulnerable to booms and busts. To wit: impose a sales tax.
But that’s where we are at the start of March 2018.
A Heritage Moment …
On this day in 1976, Peter Lougheed’s Alberta Government established the Heritage Savings Trust Fund. If subsequent Conservative governments had managed it as well as Mr. Lougheed envisaged, today we’d be as rich as Norway. Where did the money go?