PHOTOS: The Canadian Taxpayers Federation’s misleading “debt clock” trailer back when Alberta’s debt wasn’t $10 billion. Now it isn’t $17 billion. Below: CTF Alberta Director Paige MacPherson, telling Okotoks Online that 44,000 teachers should all be handed a big pay cut (Okotoks Online photo); Parkland Institute Research Manager Ian Hussey and tight-fisted Alberta NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation and Postmedia Network Canada Corp. enjoy a cozy symbiotic relationship nowadays.
The CTF supplies Postmedia’s newspapers and their online editions, including Alberta’s four-headed Frankendaily, with reams of free editorial copy produced by the secretive organization, most of it in this province attacking the Liberal government in Ottawa and the NDP government in Edmonton.
In addition, in almost any story published in a Postmedia newspaper about government spending, especially where Liberal and NDP governments are involved, a call for comment goes out to one of the CTF’s many directors. (Except for the occasional vice-president, almost all CTF employees appear to be a “director” of something.)
Despite the CTF’s protestations to the contrary, based on what they publish and distribute it can be said fairly argued both parties share the highly partisan goal of obstructing and defeating Liberal and especially New Democrat governments wherever they spring up. In addition, they share an open, aggressive hostility to public sector unions.
Postmedia newspapers, it must be acknowledged, also frequently run opinion pieces produced by other groups on both the right and left, ranging from the Fraser Institute to the Alberta Federation of Labour. But the Postmedia-CTF relationship is unusual and possibly unique in its intensity.
Even a light story on a yoga instructor being hired by the Calgary Police Service warrants a critical quote from a CTF director in the pages of the Calgary Herald. Paige MacPherson, the CTF’s Alberta director, is listed as a “columnist” by the Herald on its website, a quite accurate assessment of her role with the paper even though neither she nor the CTF is paid by Postmedia for her contributions.
Consider, as just one of a very large number of examples, Ms. MacPherson’s most recent free contribution to Postmedia, which starts from the sophomoric conclusion the economic position of Alberta in 2016 is now essentially the same as it was in 1935, in the depths of the Great Depression.
The stated purpose of this scary but misleading claim seems to be to lead readers to the belief all government debt is bad and, therefore, “now is the time … to pay down debt.”
Debt is a particular bugbear for the CTF, a convenient root of all evil with which to terrify the public in the service of the organization’s real agenda, which clearly includes undermining public sector unions and supporting low corporate taxes, broadly defined to include royalties from public-owned resources.
So Ms. MacPherson starts her argument from the claim Alberta’s debt is massive and out of control. “Our provincial debt is currently over $17 billion and our deficits are on a train without brakes,” she confidently states.
But wait… How does the CTF reach the conclusion Alberta is $17 billion in debt when the Royal Bank of Canada’s Canadian Federal and Provincial Fiscal Reference Tables, which were updated on March 22 after the federal budget was released, project the province will have no net debt for 2015-2016?
Well, it’s all in the way you define debt. The CTF’s explanation is found on it’s website where you can read it for yourself, but the key point is that the CTF ignores the normal measure used for corporations and governments, net debt, that is, a comparison of liabilities and debt with cash and other liquid assets.
“This is a fiscal slight of hand on their part,” explains Parkland Institute Research Manager Ian Hussey. “They are naming an amount of money allocated to build public infrastructure while ignoring our financial assets (or, in more everyday language, our public savings). The problem with the CTF’s approach is Alberta has substantial financial assets. The most obvious example is the Heritage Fund, which just happens to be about $17 billion. We also own a bank and an agricultural bank.”
Deceptive claims about galloping debt are at the heart of the CTF’s “debt clock” gimmick, and fair enough. It’s their trailer. But the question really ought to be, Should they be at the heart of Postmedia’s Alberta political and economic reporting?
It’s worth noting Alberta still has very little debt – probably less than it should have from the point of view of sound economic policy. If we have any as a result of the NDP’s current infrastructure investments, it will be very small thanks to the low interest rates available to governments in this economy.
Ms. MacPherson goes on to state, as if it were fact, that Alberta had a debt problem in 1992, when Ralph Klein began to implement his destructive and short-sighted attack on health care and government services. To be charitable, this is baloney. “We had the lowest debt-to-GDP ratio that year of all the provinces,” Mr. Hussey pointed out.
“We were the only province whose ratio was less than 10 per cent,” he said. “There was no reason to gut the public service in the 90s besides ideological and profit-enabling reasons. Klein did not simply ‘do what had to be done.’ Rather, Klein created the structural deficit we are now dealing with by neglecting our infrastructure and reducing our revenue-generating potential by cutting taxes dramatically in 2000-2001.”
If we were to have used the CTF’s definition, in fact, the Klein Government’s claim the province was debt free would have had to be rejected at the time.
As for Ms. MacPherson’s assertion Alberta tops the list provinces most likely to default – in fairness to her, the tendentious report she cites was widely reported in the media – this is nonsense too.
Ontario’s debt-to-GDP ratio is now almost 40 per cent – which is about 40 per cent higher than Alberta’s. Is Ontario facing a crisis because of this? Not according to this study by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, which concludes, “there is no Ontario debt crisis looming on the horizon.”
Even Brad Wall’s Saskatchewan – which nowadays is Canada’s happy hunting ground for bad Conservative ideas for front groups like the CTF – is scheduled to spend more per capita on program expenses than Alberta is in 2015-2016. But then, Mr. Wall faces an election soon, doesn’t he?
Program spending? Mr. Hussey notes it’s expected to go up by more than $300 per person this year over last in both Saskatchewan and British Columbia – and by only $34, that’s thirty-four dollars, under tight-fisted NDP Finance Minister Joe Ceci.
It sure is funny how we never hear anything about that in CTF press releases or elsewhere in the drivel published by Alberta’s Postmedia Frankenpaper!
Look, I could go on and on about this, but why bother?
As the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Democratic Party U.S. Senator for New York State, ambassador and sociologist is reputed to have observed: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.