PHOTOS: Contingents from the Centre Right, the Far Right and the Further Right mix it up in the Alberta Legislature’s commissary. Actual Alberta conservatives may not appear exactly as illustrated. Below: Guest post author Barret Weber, Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier Rachel Notley, Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt and Goldilocks, exiting, pursued by a bear.
Guest Post by Barret Weber
Much of the Alberta NDP government’s agenda has been carried out, leaving the governing party with lots of time to gear up for the 2019 election in the context of an increasingly disorganized and disoriented right wing and now resurgent and assertive “centre.”
The Notley government passed its two-year milestone in May. It has executed or is in the process of executing many of its campaign plans. These include banning union and corporate donations to political parties, “modernizing” the fossil fuel royalty system, and making changes to the income tax system. It also includes numerous changes to labour-related legislation – post-secondary, farm workers, non-unionized workers, etc. – among many other impressive accomplishments such as a steep ascent to a $15 minimum wage by Oct. 1, 2018, from $10.20 in 2014-15.
It is worth underscoring that the Notley Government has dedicated significant effort and political capital toward protecting non-unionized workers through such sensible changes as protective leave for employees tending to sick children in Bill 17: The Fair and Family-friendly Workplaces Act.
This partial list illustrates the accomplishments of a successful and busy government whose priorities are in the right places from a social justice perspective (leaving the pipeline debate aside).
Two years into its mandate, there are a number of things we know:
- The government has faced an extremely difficult and at times belligerent official Opposition fixated on its own political fortunes above all else, often implying the NDP created the current budgetary and social program sustainability crisis.
- The government also faces continued efforts by Progressive Conservative Leader Jason Kenney to “unite the right” by merging the PC and Wildrose parties. In fact, since the election of the NDP in 2015, we have witnessed a fascinating case study in the dismantling of the right wing before our very eyes in a fashion that maps well with similar changes occurring in the U.S. that gave rise to the Trump Presidency. After governing the province virtually unchallenged for decades, the PC Party is on a trajectory to destroy itself for no other reason than it lost one election since 1971. We can conclude that democracy is not something the Alberta right is that interested in.
- Official Opposition leader Brian Jean largely agrees with Mr. Kenney. While he has a slightly more respectable and palatable reputation, given his performance in the Legislature and social media campaigns it appears he believes his electoral chances are best bet on stoking anger against government itself, no matter what its present leaders do or don’t do. Whether it be on even the most minor changes to labour law, royalties, or social services (after politicizing the tragic case of Baby Serenity for party gain), Mr. Jean has shown little interest in setting a more moderate or constructive tone in his rhetoric. Incidentally, he is well acquainted with such meaningless phrases as “Alberta is the best place in the world,” “let’s support Alberta oil over foreign dictator oil,” and so forth. These are not stances taken by someone intent on making sensible policy. This is ideology at it purest. You can tell because little meaningful action is required by such statements.
- Alberta’s right wing is becoming more extreme, desperate and chaotic. Wildrose Finance Critic Derek Fildebrandt, perhaps the most senior loose cannon of the bunch, mused recently about the introduction of “right to work” laws in Alberta. He said: “What is not the legitimate role of unions is to take union members’ dues … and put them towards a political campaign.” It’s worth noting that Alberta’s labour movement has been largely silent in response to the anti-labour rhetoric now commonplace in Wildrose speeches. (Remember union thugs?)
We can deduce from these high-level facts that the right wing will not struggle for the centre over the next two years.
Mr. Kenney’s positions on gay-straight alliances, coal phase-out, taxation, climate change denial, and so forth are all hard right. It doesn’t appear he has any intention of introducing a progressive agenda in the 2019 election campaign unless the term “free enterprise” has any centrist meaning.
So we know the NDP will likely be struggling for the centre with figures other than Mr. Kenney, Mr. Jean, or social conservatives of their ilk.
Which brings us to the Alberta Party and recent broad efforts to “unite the centre.” In this light, senior NDP strategists must be wondering which they dislike more, efforts to unite the right or unite the centre.
With the Alberta Party we have considerably more solid information to go on. In its 2016-2017 and 2017-2021 shadow budgets, the party went to considerable lengths to distinguish its position from what it terms the “Pathway of Permanent Deficit, Unsustainable Debt” (i.e. its interpretation of the NDP approach) and the “Pathway of Slash and Burn” (how it sees the right’s pathway). In self-referential fashion fit for a self-proclaimed “centrist” party, it calls its own perspective the “Pathway to Prosperity.”
In its description of the right wing perspective – “Slash and Burn” – it uses the government’s and labour movement’s critique of the right to “bring the budget into balance immediately, [where] massive front line cuts of 19.7 per cent are needed.” It argues it was “years of this short-sighted ideology in Alberta that has largely contributing [sic] to the current economic crisis.”
Too bad it didn’t introduce this context when describing the NDP’s so-called “Pathway of Permanent Deficit, Unsustainable Debt.”
In the description of the NDP position, by contrast, the Alberta Party uses decidedly right-wing language, describing the perils of “big government” that “values the government sector above both the private and non-profit sectors.” The government, it concludes, “is focused on expanding public services, not delivering more and better services for less.” This is surely an arguable statement given today’s restraint in government spending, which has been more like a permanent feature of government in Alberta for years.
So the Alberta Party introduces the “Goldilocks and Three Bears approach” to public policy, wherein other approaches are reduced to porridge that is either too hot or too cold, while their recipe is “just right.”
Using an eclectic array of language from whatever perspective serves its momentary interest, the Alberta Party argues there is “another path.” It is, of course, “sensible” and “pragmatic.” The party claims it can somehow accomplish all its goals “by implementing common sense restraint without major cuts that would disrupt front line public services Albertans rely on.” Not only would the it phase out non-renewable revenue sources, it would also “investigate new stable revenue alternatives to replace royalty revenues in the long term.” It vows to invite input from Albertans on how this might happen.
The Alberta Party calls for income tax cuts, reduced corporate income tax rates, total elimination of small business taxes, tax incentives for industry, public sector austerity, and making the carbon levy fully revenue neutral.
Given this, it’s hard to escape the conclusion the Alberta Party’s so-called “Pathway to Prosperity” is little more than “Voodoo economics,” wherein, as Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman recently wrote, “cutting taxes on rich people will conjure up an economic miracle, so much so that revenues will actually rise.”
The Alberta Party message that is left is that tax cuts will cure everything that ails us. And where, might I ask, have we heard this policy prescription before? Surely not the left!
We should remember that Goldilocks eventually had to escape into the forest when the bears came home. “And she never returned to the home of the three bears,” the story concludes.
Barret Weber is a member of the Friends of Medicare and earned a doctorate in sociology from the University of Alberta.