This week at the UCP: huge cuts, social conservative sins, and complaints of fractious fibs dominate the conversation

Posted on September 07, 2017, 1:27 am
10 mins

PHOTOS: A screenshot of United Conservative Party leadership frontrunner Jason Kenney as he appeared during his Internet town hall Tuesday. Below: UCP leadership contenders Doug Schweitzer and Brian Jean, U of A Professor Russell Cobb and Alberta NDP Premier Rachel Notley.

Jason Kenney, front-running candidate to lead Alberta’s United Conservative Party, doesn’t put very much about his plans in writing, but he sure does talk.

On Tuesday the former Harper Government cabinet minister and Progressive Conservative Party leader held one of those ubiquitous Internet town halls at which he burbled about what he plans to do with Alberta’s economy should he become the premier – or, as Mr. Kenney annoyingly explained it with a smirk, when he becomes premier.

The gist of his claim was that with a little economic growth and after a (presumably almost painless) couple of years in which “we would have to exercise a period of sustained restraint in spending … I believe that we’d be able to get to a balanced budget by the third year of our mandate, which would be roughly in 2022.”

This promise sent wonks of all political stripes – former Wildrose Party leader and UCP leadership contender Brian Jean’s as much as NDP Premier Rachel Notley’s – to their calculators to see what this might really mean. The conclusion? Yikes!

The bad news is that when properly adjusted for inflation and population growth, the cuts proposed by Mr. Kenney would be about 60 per cent larger than the infamous cuts made by the Progressive Conservative government of Ralph Klein, from which, in fields like health care, Alberta is still recovering.

This should be cause for sober second thought, though it likely won’t be among Mr. Kenney’s hard-core supporters, who do like a little fiscal suffering, as long as it’s not them who are suffering it.

The NDP quickly jumped on this, with the government caucus immediately issuing a press release doing the math and arguing this would amount to a cut of $11 billion, or about 20 per cent of the current provincial budget.

This, the NDP news release quoted Ms. Notley saying, would be “an extremely reckless idea.” Well, no kidding. Reckless hardly begins to describe the impact of cuts of this magnitude between 2019 and 2022.

Mr. Kenney’s plan would, said the NDP, “leave seniors waiting for hospital beds, overflowing emergency rooms and crowded school classrooms.”

“In order to achieve a $10 billion savings you could cut K-12 funding in half, you could eliminate all post-secondary funding four times, you could eliminate all police funding and justice funding and close the courts and still be looking for more money,” Ms. Notley said. “It would absolutely stop dead in its tracks the economic recovery that our government is proud to be leading right now.”

Well, she’s quite right about that, even if she sounds a bit less cataclysmic than a professional economist might.

What might this level of cutting look like? Consider the state of Oklahoma, like Alberta a jurisdiction with a resource dependent economy and dogged determination to keep taxes so low it can barely operate.

Oklahoma is so tax poor it can no longer afford to fund education, with many school districts saving money by cutting back to a four-day week. The state’s teachers are paid less than entry-level convenience store clerks, a University of Alberta professor who hails from Oklahoma wrote recently in the Guardian.

Dependence on taxes derived from oil and gas “has left the state unprepared for inevitable price downturns of a cyclical industry,” Russell Cobb quoted the president of the state’s oil and gas association as recognizing.

Professor Cobb went on: “Governor Mary Fallin had an answer: prayer. The governor issued an official proclamation (creating) Oilfield Prayer Day. Christians were to gather in churches and hope for a little divine intervention targeting falling worldwide oil prices.”

Alas, the deity failed to intervene, and Oklahoma’s situation remains dire.

If this sounds to you a lot like what Mr. Kenney’s proposed economic policies would look like – including the way Mr. Kenney would probably deal with their inevitable fallout – you’re right.

As befits a clever career politician, though, while appealing to his red-meat Wildrose base, Mr. Kenney left himself a little wiggle room on Tuesday, advising his listeners, “I’m not giving a super-specific date right now because we do not yet know what the fiscal or economic context will be when we publish our first budget in the spring of 2020.”

Still, as my colleague Dave Cournoyer, author of the excellent political blog, observed yesterday, both Ms. Notley’s NDP and Mr. Kenney’s prospective UCP, are playing out different sides of the same strategy.

While they appeal to their bases, they’re both praying as hard as Gov. Fallin that petroleum prices recover enough to keep Alberta’s lights on without having to raise taxes or cut the budget to shreds – which, Mr. Kenney’s cheerful bloviations notwithstanding, would be painful.

That’s really not good enough for a modern Canadian province, which, whether you’re a die-hard social democrat, a hard-core fiscal conservative, or something in between, still has to deliver a certain level of services.

That isn’t going to happen without improvement on the revenue side and, as has been said in this space before, the quickest and least painful way to achieve that in the absence of an oil price miracle is through adoption of a sales tax.

Sooner or later, someone is going to have to take the tax bull by the horns.

Meanwhile, UCP leadership candidate Doug Schweitzer, whose economic prescriptions are pretty much the same as Mr. Kenney’s, has gone after the frontrunner’s well-known social conservative views with surprising vigour.

In a fund-raising email, Mr. Schweitzer complained he was unable to march in last week’s Calgary Pride Parade because of the organizers’ ban on representatives of the party taking part. He blamed Mr. Kenney.

“Jason Kenney has come back from Ottawa, and brought with him a long track record of voting against the LGBTQ community,” Mr. Schweitzer wrote. “Is it any wonder UCP members were not permitted to participate in the 2017 Calgary Pride Parade?”

“Our opponents won’t give conservatives a free pass on social issues like this, and neither will the general public,” he wrote. “We need to get the social issues right if we want to beat the NDP in 2019. We don’t need another lake of fire …”

For his part, Mr. Jean, who is an MLA and thus doesn’t have the luxury of bloviating from the sidelines like the other two, complained in his email fund-raiser that Mr. Kenney is engaging “in personal attacks about me, using statements that he knows are simply not true.”

Presumably provoking snickers in all political corners, Mr. Jean went on: “My opponents in this race know there is no ‘caucus deficit,’” … at least, he admitted, there won’t be at the end of the year, since the Legislative Assembly Office will make the UCP Caucus behave.

“They know that there was always going to be a reduction in funding and difficult staffing decisions as a result of the two caucuses coming together,” Mr. Jean said. “And they know that the reduction in funding means savings for taxpayers of nearly half a million dollars a year going forward.”

Well, true enough, but as appeal to the restraining influence of public employees seems unlikely to excite the UCP base.

22 Comments to: This week at the UCP: huge cuts, social conservative sins, and complaints of fractious fibs dominate the conversation

  1. Gary Feltham

    September 7th, 2017

    Once again the author of this blog resorts to a fanciful spinning of the facts in favour of the NDP and against the UCP.

    For example, this sentence “Well, she’s quite right about that, even if she sounds a bit less cataclysmic than a professional economist might.” is not just a little bit false, but totally inaccurate. Trevor Tombe, an economist at the University of Calgary, wrote this on Twitter yesterday, “Goal by @jkenney to balance by 2022/233 is entirely credible. Doesn’t (necessarily) require any spending cuts. Certainly not drastic. #ableg” He also wrote that the NDP’s plan to balance the budget a year later is simply not credible.

    I realize that Mr. Climenhaga’s blog is an opinion piece but it should have some basis in fact and not merely engage in mindless fear mongering. We get enough of that already from the NDP party.

    • Death and Gravity

      September 7th, 2017

      How exactly can Kenney’s goal be reached without spending cuts? And since nothing but spending cuts was mentioned by Kenney, how is it more credible than the NPDs plan? Can you provide a reason except dislike for the NDP?

    • It's That Damned Calgary Guy Again

      September 7th, 2017

      “mindless fear mongering”

      Ha ha ha. That’s pretty much all we get from UCP and CPC. They have a virtual monopoly on the title of Canada’s Merchants of Fear.

      Pretty much the views I’d expect from anyone retweets RW fundamentalists like Dennis Prager. proprietor of his own, eponymously named fake university.

      Thanks for coming out Gary.

    • Tiddo

      September 7th, 2017

      Speak for yourself… where’s the proof? What’s Tombe’s stake or position in this? Does he offer an analysis with some data or is it just a tweet?

      Alberta has spent the past 30 years milking the energy industry to pay the bills while crying about taxes and spending. The energy industry is effectively in a long term slump from which it may recover but not to the same heights as 10 years ago, at least not for the long term.

      What then? Who builds the roads? Who pays for schools and hospitals and cops and courts and prisons? How do we pay for all this stuff? Starve the beast only works when the beast is already fat and happy. When it’s lean and hungry it tends to go badly.

      The same people who scream bloody murder about having to pay a little bit more just to maintain basic services also bray just as loudly that we should Get Tough on Crime (or any of their other knee-jerk ideological policy positions) never seem to put two-and-two together to realize that “getting tough” (i.e. more cops and prisons) or whatever, almost always involves higher costs down the line. But that’s okay, because once again playing by The Ideologue’s Playbook, doing dumb things by ignoring evidence to the contrary proves once again that government can’t do anything right, experts are wrong, civil servants are lazy and selfish, those guys are dangerous ideologues but we’re pragmatic problem solvers, and nobody ever got elected by admitting they were wrong.

    • Bob Raynard

      September 7th, 2017

      I have heard Trevor Tombe speak as a guest on radio shows. While his credentials as an economist gets him on shows as an ‘expert’, he really just sounds like a UPC hack once he is given a microphone. For example, most economists agree Alberta needs to implement a sales tax as part of the solution to our deficit, but Mr. Tombe just dismissed the option out of hand, suggesting the government would just spend the increased revenue. That is a UCP line, not a professional economist’s line.

    • Murphy

      September 7th, 2017

      MIndless fear-mongering from the NDP? Lorne Gunter uses words like “disaster” to descrribe the NDP in the Frankenpaper whenever he puts his crayon to his coloring book. I like the fact that you Kons are conissitent: admit nothing, deny everything, make counter-accusations.

  2. J.E. Molnar

    September 7th, 2017

    You’d have to be living on Jupiter to not know the UCP’s punishing cuts to Alberta public services and public sector employees would severely bludgeon the province and hamper its ability to provide frontline services to Albertans. They would likely follow the approach adopted by Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall when it comes to tax increases and user fees.

    Readers might recall “Grim Jim” Prentice was set to introduce 59 new taxes and fees in 2015 (including a healthcare premium) to lessen the financial deficit and even then, government officials still projected a $5-6 billion deficit after the imposition of those additional fees and cuts. Fortunately, Prentice never got to implement his “look-in-the-mirror” plan.

    I would expect Kenney or Jean would greatly surpass the painful measures Prentice was contemplating by a much greater degree, if they should ever assume control of the legislature. Let’s all hope the voting public sees the UCP for what it really is — misguided, hidebound conservatism.

  3. Janice Williamson

    September 7th, 2017

    Thank you for this critique of Kenney’s ideological spin of the economy. Disaster in the making. His social values and economic plans send chills down my spine. Perhaps garlic will keep him at bay.

    And I’m glad you referenced Russell Cobb’s excellent analysis of Oklahoma – we share many vowels, a reliance on failing resources, and a disastrous future if Kenney has his way.

    Sales tax? Why not? What other alternatives are there?

  4. David

    September 7th, 2017

    Oh where does one begin with Mr. Kenney’s strategy of a “policy free” campaign. It’s one of those clever ideas – too clever, that probably only someone who is a career politician would come up in the first place. It is a new party, officially it doesn’t have policies yet, so lets not talk about policies now. Of course as the proponents of uniting Wildrose and the PC parties correctly argued, many if not most of their policies are the same or similar. I think anyone running for the leadership should have a good enough idea of what policies might fit their party to have a fairly good policy platform – not necessarily a policy for everything, but a policy for most things and be prepared to talk about it.

    Kenney’s announcement about getting rid of the deficit is a continuation of his approach. Either he has a plan and is hiding it from Albertans or he has no plan (which might actually fit with having no policies) – either way it is not good for Albertans. We would like to know how he plans to get rid of the deficit – pray for higher oil prices, close schools one day a week, put in a sales tax, blow up hospitals, etc… All would have implications for Alberta and if he is so confident he will be premier, well we would like to know what he is actually going to do. Albertans deserve honesty about the hard choices required, not happy talk about how he will somehow magically make the deficit disappear.

    While there hasn’t been a lot of policy from other candidates, they have at least put forward some ideas. Some ideas, such as Alberta acquiring the Churchill rail line/port is worthy of discussion and debate. I am not saying we should rush and do it, but we should talk about it and see if it makes sense. Years ago the previous Alberta government developed/purchased a grain terminal in Prince Rupert to help Alberta farmers. This is somewhat similar. Of course, buying up a port or rail line isn’t really a conservative idea, but at least it is something we as Albertans can debate.

    I have doubts that the UCP, which is having trouble with its caucus deficit (and the funding for that is more stable and predictable than energy revenues) really has thought through how to balance our budget. They think they should say they will do it, because it sounds good politically and it fits their ideology. They will try to leave the “how” as much as possible until after the election and that is why we could end up with a disaster like Oklahoma.

  5. tom in ontario

    September 7th, 2017

    “…Christians were to gather in churches and hope for a little divine intervention targeting falling worldwide oil prices.”
    Alas, the deity failed to intervene, and Oklahoma’s situation remains dire, writes the blogger.

    Perhaps the Governor and good folks of Oklahoma could try again by praying that the people of Florida and the Caribbean escape the ravages of Hurricane Irma.

  6. Shaun

    September 7th, 2017

    While I agree mindless fear mongering (From both sides of the spectrum) has made political discussion extremely difficult if not impossible, please stop trying to sound like you’re even remotely centrist. You’re not, and you’ve OD’d on the hypocrite pills today.

    • Expat Albertan

      September 7th, 2017

      You must be late to the party. David has been openly and proudly left-of-centre for some time. It’s why people like me keep coming back.

      • Scotty on Denman

        September 7th, 2017

        And, while we’re at it, let’s agree that “left-of-centre” may include the centre, or something very, very nearly close to it. This means that a considerable amount of ideological overlap exists between two supposed polarities, something the divide-and-conquer strategists—these days entirely on the far right, there being no real far left anymore—really don’t want to acknowledge: spoils their divisive, dualist rhetoric.

        And it really bugs the far right—who’ve driven moderates out of nominal conservative parties—that real Tories are fundamentally communitarian, even thought they accept class distinctions within an organically whole society, and may therefore truck with socialists—even occasionally anarchists—on many issues. These accommodations may even be found somewhere outside of centrist territory. But the neo-right extremists can’t reconcile their us-against-them narrative with such enlightened reality: they must regress to a simpler, darker worldview.

      • Shaun

        September 8th, 2017

        Not sure how it got here. It was a reply to Gary Feltham. David keeps me coming back as well. I usually enjoy his points, and always enjoy his writing.

  7. Farmer B

    September 7th, 2017

    Main Street Research just released a poll rating how Albertan’s feel about 18 prominent political and sports figures. Rachel Notley came in last place the most disliked of the 18 choices, Joe Ceci in 17th, Justin Trudeau 16th. If I remember correctly Brian Jean was either 2nd or 3rd. Only eclipsed by Connor McDavid. So while there is not doubt that some of the proposed cuts are unrealistic there seems to be an appetite for cuts as opposed to increased taxes.

    • Scotty on Denman

      September 7th, 2017

      Opportunities for Albertans to give their political heads a shake are far and few between, partisan dynasties dominating for generations each, if the past is anything to go by.

      The NDP government might end up a mere flash in the pan—meaning that Albertans will have decided to revert to the right, and possibly to the long lasting paternalism most who call themselves right-wing opponents to nanny-state government claim to detest.

      Kenney certainly recommends turning backwards, so, if Alberta really is new, and really wants to move in a new direction, it either has to stick with the NDP, or use its current regime as a springboard to something else—other than the UCP, that is.

    • Ward

      September 7th, 2017

      All politicians in power have to make difficult decisions affecting people.

      Without doubt Connor McDavid is a talented hockey player who will go onto a great career (barring injury). Connor McDavid is a sports hero whose only critics are fans of opposing teams he beats. No wonder he is in first place.

      The poll is not conducted on a level ice surface.

    • Val

      September 7th, 2017

      good intent, but you cannot persuade former and present receivers of paycheck from tax collection. this board has become pretty typical boring “progressive” to extremes place.

    • Keith McClary

      September 8th, 2017

      “Main Street Research/Postmedia”, actually.
      This is a rather frivolous poll. It’s like asking people if they prefer liver or tomatoes and then drawing conclusions about how many are vegetarians. I wonder who paid for this and why.

      • tom in ontario

        September 8th, 2017

        And how was the poll conducted?
        Online? People with land lines only? Show of hands at an evangelical prayer meeting?

  8. brett

    September 7th, 2017

    Call me when Kenney actually enunciates a clear,concrete policy.

    Until then I am not interesting in anything that this wind bag has to say.

    I will not be expecting a call anytime soon.

  9. David

    September 9th, 2017

    I suppose Mr. Kenney can now add magician to his resume to round it out, as his only other skill is being a career politician. He is going to magically make the deficit disappear by waving his wand, which is even more hidden than he is. During his campaign, every once in a while he pops up out of his hidely hole like a big ground hog and then quickly disappears again to campaign in some mythicial (or maybe it is now magical) small town like Whitelock, Alberta. I don’t know much about such mythical places, but they seem to be where no media can find him.

    I suppose the 20% cuts would have to be larger in some areas as some things can not be cut or cut as much. I guess rather than a Ralph style blowing up one hospital, Kenney would need to shut down one in five. Given the less busy ones are in rural Alberta, I think we know what that likely means. Yikes, no wonder Kenney doesn’t really want to talk about policy until after he is elected. Of course, Brian Jean might do something similar, but given he seems to have a bit stronger connection to rural Alberta, perhaps he would go a bit easier on the rural hospitals and inflict more of the pain elsewhere.

    I suppose somewhere in Kenney the magicians secret handbook, their is a section on how to make schools and hospitals disappear. There is probably also a section on how to make himself (temporarily) disappear, in case the media starts to ask difficult questions like how he would actually do what he plans, and magically reappear far, far away from the media in some mythical or magical place like Whitelock, Alberta.


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