Alberta Politics
“Blue-ribbon” panel chair Janice MacKinnon during yesterday’s Calgary news conference (Photo: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

‘Blue-Ribbon Panel’ report sets stage for full-blown austerity, private health care, soaring tuition and much more

Posted on September 04, 2019, 2:10 am
8 mins

The recommendations of the Kenney Government’s “blue-ribbon panel” on Alberta’s finances yesterday went further over the top than you’d even have expected from a report ginned up by a couple of Fraser Institute ringers, a former bank president, and a few additional followers of the government’s low-tax, market-fundamentalist ideology.

As anticipated, the report called for a full-blown austerity program that includes cuts of “at least” $600 million a year from the province’s operating budget, plenty of health-care privatization, an end to limits on tuition fees, and war with the province’s public sector unions —which the United Conservative Party clearly thinks, quite possibly correctly, it has the political capital right now to win.

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Answers to reporters’ questions by panel chair Janice MacKinnon and Finance Minister Travis Toews at the news conference in Calgary, however, also offer hints we may see post-secondary institutions, high schools and hospitals closed down, and a wage cut for the province’s physicians.

Closing hospitals and schools, of course, especially if it’s done in the UCP’s rural heartland, would bring the pain of austerity right to the party’s electoral base. And despite a few tries over the years, no Alberta Conservative party has yet picked a fight with the docs it could win.

Maybe Premier Jason Kenney thinks his government can throw doctors enough privatization bones to win them over, or that the NDP’s deal with the Alberta Medical Association last year gave them enough control over the health care system to be satisfied with a smaller paycheque. But don’t count on that.

Brian Topp, a former aide to Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

Even Don Braid, the fervently pro-UCP Calgary Herald’s political columnist, termed this “a radical document” that could make the upheaval in the 1990s by Ralph Klein’s radical restructuring seem mild in comparison when the stuff starts hitting the fan.

It is quite clear, as was said in this space before the report was released, that this is not a legitimate study but a political document intended to justify what the government has already decided to do. But no one can dispute that back in April Alberta voters gave the UCP a mandate to do pretty much whatever they please.

The report stoutly denies the province has a revenue problem – and Dr. MacKinnon, the former Saskatchewan finance minister notorious for closing 52 rural hospitals in that province in the late 1990s, returned to that theme in the news conference, claiming “we don’t have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem.”

This is ironic, given that the UCP has just blown a $4.5-billion hole in the budget with a massive corporate tax giveaway that is unlikely, if the study of economics is any guide, to live up to its billing as a “job-creating” policy.

In light of her personal history, Dr. MacKinnon’s reference in the news conference to “fewer hospitals” must have made eyes bug out in some quarters.

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

The report also calls for the government to use legislation to impose collective agreements containing wage freezes or cuts on public employees, which is sure to be challenged as bargaining in bad faith and a violation of union members’ constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively. So in addition to everything else, expect the courts to have to weigh in.

Other recommendations and comments hinted at elimination of post-secondary institutions (Athabasca University, perhaps?), sell-offs of Crown land (without consultations with First Nations?), disposal of “surplus assets” (ATB Financial?), and “tackling all the issues facing business, not just taxes” (right to work laws?). At this point, though, it’s hard to know for certain what the government has in mind because the language of the report is heavily cloaked in rhetorical code words familiar to any student of neoliberal governance.

Rest assured, though, the fallout from the program this report introduces won’t be pretty, and things may get exciting at times.

As blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out in his Daveberta.ca blog yesterday, part of the blame for this sorry state of affairs must be assigned to previous governments, including that of New Democrat Rachel Notley, because they “did not fix Alberta’s revenue problems when they had the chance.”

‘It’s an ugly story, the Janice MacKinnon story’

Dr. MacKinnon, one of the Fraser Institute associates referenced earlier in this post, elicited a bitter social media response yesterday from Brian Topp, a senior political advisor to former Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow during some of the years the “blue-ribbon panel” chair served in that province’s NDP cabinet.

Former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow (Photo: David J. Climenhaga).

“You dream of being an NDP Premier in Saskatchewan — a successor to Tommy Douglas, hoping to occupy his office, to sit behind his desk,” wrote Mr. Topp, who was also a top aide to Alberta premier Rachel Notley after her election in 2015 and a candidate to lead the federal NDP after the death of Jack Layton.

“You look around the Cabinet and caucus table, the people who know you best; it gradually dawns on you that not a single colleague would support you and that most loathe you,” he continued. “So you quit; you use your NDP credentials to attack your former party for a decade; and you join the other side — doubling down on your darkest obsessions, the ones that cost you your political career. It’s an ugly story, the Janice MacKinnon story.” (Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Mr. Topp’s post, Dwain Lingenfelter, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP from 2009 to 2011, accused Dr. MacKinnon of rewriting that province’s history to suit herself and the Alberta UCP. “For the former minister of Social Services to take the credit for balancing the budget when she wasn’t the minister of Finance when all the heavy lifting happened is a little rich,” he commented.

The entire conversation on Facebook is worth a look.

Like that of panel member Bev Dahlby, a University of Calgary economist, the contents of Dr. MacKinnon’s “author page” have recently disappeared from the Fraser Institute’s website.

28 Comments to: ‘Blue-Ribbon Panel’ report sets stage for full-blown austerity, private health care, soaring tuition and much more

  1. CovKid

    September 4th, 2019

    “Blue Ribbon”: who do they think they’re kidding? The only qualification is that they’re programmed into the Conservative pattern of transferring wealth into private hands.

    That MacKinnon should use her background as an NDP Finance Minister to achieve this is an abomination and should be condemned by her previous boss who gave her any credibility, Roy Romonow.

    Reply
    • Farmer Dave

      September 5th, 2019

      COVID, where do you think Janice MacKinnon got her qualifications from, not from the NDP but the Fraser Institute. You need to look up the Fraser Institute and who they support. Although she was part of the NDP team in Saskatchewan, it was a bluff. And Mike Percy was associated with the Liberals for a short time and both him and MacKinnon are hiding in sheep’s clothing to support Conservatives a religious right wing party. At one time the Progressive Conservatives were a very good alternative party but Preston Manning and his religious right ruined this Party and changed the name Federally to the Conservatives and Provincially to the UCP. Just watch and see where Janice MacKinnon and Mike Percy get their next public appointments from the UCP or Conservatives for being loyal to them and that should tell you the whole story about Jason Kenney.

      Reply
      • Tom

        September 5th, 2019

        Agreed. Mike Percy has been living off the fat of austerity for decades.

        Reply
      • CovKid

        September 5th, 2019

        That’s my point exactly: MacKinnon was never a true NDP aficionado but managed to manoeuvre her way into an influential position somewhat like a latter-day Trojan horse and use that part of her CV to torpedo initiatives beneficial to ordinary Canadians.

        How she manages to pass off her credentials as a bona fide member of the Saskatchewan NDP represents a major rebuke to the so-called “free press” which is suppose to filter this crap.

        Reply
  2. ronmac

    September 4th, 2019

    They don’t call him Kamikaze Ken for nothing.

    Reply
  3. Expat Albertan

    September 4th, 2019

    Thanks for that, David. I never understood how an NDPer could be the champion of austerity…now I know.

    Reply
  4. _

    September 4th, 2019

    minister if Social Services

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 4th, 2019

      Thanks, fixed. DJC

      Reply
  5. J.E. Molnar

    September 4th, 2019

    So it appears another conservative dumpster fire is about to ignite in Alberta.

    By ignoring the taxation side of Alberta’s balance sheet as a generator of revenue, this collection of tendentious market-fundamentalist thinkers is prepared to dismiss as much as $8.2 billion annually from provincial coffers. That’s the amount Alberta would receive if they taxed at the same rates as B.C. Hopefully the NDP is prepared for a fulsome debate and prepared also to shed some light on the taxation side of the ledger. When Albertans have the full story, only then will Kenney’s charade and sleight of hand be properly exposed for what it is — smoke and mirrors propaganda designed to attack public services and public sector workers. Do not spare any expense NDP.

    Reply
    • Bob Raynard

      September 5th, 2019

      J. E., I don’t disagree with your sentiment, but I can’t see the NDP following your advice. Calling for higher taxes would be political suicide, even if it the correct way to go.

      It is unfortunate, but I can’t see any party being willing to sacrifice their electoral support to do the right thing.

      Reply
  6. Geoffrey Pounder

    September 4th, 2019

    Strong words from Brian Topp against Janice MacKinnon.
    Wasn’t Topp the chief architect of Premier Notley’s shift to the right? Did he not oversee the royalty review? Whose idea was it to try to outconservative the conservatives on energy and climate issues?

    Then-Edmonton Journal columnist Graham Thomson called then-chief of staff Topp the “most powerful person in the Alberta government” and the “architect of much of the government’s aggressive agenda”. “It is difficult to overstate Topp’s influence on, and importance to, Notley and her government.”
    “Think of the government’s agenda the past 19 months and pretty much everything is covered in Topp’s fingerprints: the REVIEW OF ENERGY ROYALTIES; a new CLIMATE CHANGE STRATEGY; a carbon tax; revamping the province’s electricity market; boosting the minimum wage; hiking corporate taxes; banning political donations from corporations and unions; limiting campaign spending; borrowing billions of dollars for infrastructure projects; GETTING FEDERAL APPROVAL FOR A PIPELINE PROJECT TO TIDEWATER.”
    https://edmontonjournal.com/news/politics/graham-thomson-notleys-chief-of-staff-brian-topp-resigns

    Reply
    • camjournal

      September 4th, 2019

      Geoffrey,
      I’m having a great deal of trouble not believing that you are a right-wing, socialist-hating troll. I don’t normally read your comments because it’s always the same – slag the NDP while making excuses for the conservatives. I did read this one and it’s typical and not actually worth replying to, but I couldn’t resist…

      Reply
      • Geoffrey Pounder

        September 5th, 2019

        You’re misreading my posts.
        Where in the above comment did I slag the NDP or make excuses for the conservatives?
        The NDP’s rightward shift, failure to increase royalties, and dismal 2019 election campaign are historical facts. So is criticism thereof.
        I merely note Brian Topp’s harsh criticism of Janice MacKinnon when he himself advised Notley & Co. to shift right.

        Notley’s NDP came under frequent fire from supporters and observers:

        -Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour
        -Tzeporah Berman
        -Naomi Klein
        -Dr John O’Connor
        -Allan Adam, chief of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation
        -Kevin Taft
        -Markham Hislop

        I’m in good company.

        Unlike some, I do not swear undying allegiance to political leaders or parties. That’s the mark of a dictatorship or cult. In a healthy democracy, voters must hold their representatives to account.

        Reply
  7. Political Ranger

    September 4th, 2019

    Lot’s of light and sound here but maybe mostly smoke and mirrors. Let’s not forget an (perhaps the most) important axiom of successful politics in Canada, campaign from the right (or left) but govern from the middle.

    These nutty fruitcakes can mouth platitudes and stroke each other all they want but it’s very unlikely that citizens will tolerate much of the more egregious results alluded to, even here in Alberta. Remember that only 35% of the voting population elected this bunch of wing nuts and while the evangelical mouth-breathers in rural ridings will support their UCP MLA to the last pitchfork it’s a much more tenuous situation for MLA’s in the urban and suburban ridings.

    At present, the UCP has 63 seats, a 19 seat surplus to hold a majority. A few years ago we saw 12 members cross the floor in our province, yesterday we saw 14 cross over in New Brunswick and in ol’ Blighty we saw 1 cross over (because that was all that was needed to make the point).
    I’m not convinced that any sane and sober (if any such exist) UCP member in an urban riding will tolerate the mad, lunatic ravings of the crazed far-right of their party.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 4th, 2019

      You’re uncharacteristically upbeat today, Ranger. You certainly have more faith in the current UCP Caucus than I do. DJC

      Reply
      • Political Ranger

        September 5th, 2019

        to paraphrase: any light in a dark, dark tunnel

        Reply
  8. Hana Razga

    September 4th, 2019

    Yup, Conservative times are hard times for the ordinary people. It has always been thus. It is heartbreaking to see the undoing of the work of the NDP government, the only one in recent memory truly for the ordinary people and families….

    Reply
  9. Dave

    September 4th, 2019

    If it were some other politician, I would say this panel report was a trial balloon, as it is far from the modest cuts proposed in the election and the financial situation if anything has improved slightly since then. However, I don’t think trial balloons are Mr. Kenney’s style.

    It is ironic the report referenced $600 million a year to balance the budget. Wouldn’t that have been covered if Mr. Kenney did not cut taxes for large corporations? It seems to a strange way to go about solving a problem – you have a hole, dig it deeper and then forbid your blue ribbon panel from addressing what you just did. In any event, I suspect Alberta will be in for a bumpy ride for the next several years as Mr. Kenney and his panel seem to have austerity fever.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if Athabasca University is not around in a year and possibly a post secondary institution in Calgary too, although perhaps he will avoid the theatrics of blowing up an old building a la Klein. I’m not sure there will be a great savings by renaming hospitals as clinics, but the Conservatives approach to health care in the past seemed to involve a lot of renaming and reshuffling to give the appearance of action. Rural UCP MLA’s may develop some backbone when their own rural hospitals are threatened with closure, so I am not sure that will actually happen. Also, doctors, who probably have few friends in the UCP, should not be underestimated either.

    Mr. Kenney does have some political capital to spend, we’ll see how much of it he decides to use. The broader the cuts, the more it will cost him politically and political capital is not necessarily a renewable resource. Mr. Klein had the good fortune of charm and rising gas and oil prices to blunt the effects of his cuts. At this point, it doesn’t seem Mr. Kenney will be as blessed or fortunate.

    Despite of the whining and moaning of the last few years, this is not the great depression, Alberta is still a well off province (still more so than most other provinces) and its citizens expect a fairly high level of government services. While I wish the long serving PC’s were more candid with voters about our financial situation, I have a feeling voters did not want to hear the message at the time, so it was put off and I certainly don’t blame Premier Notley who was preoccupied with cleaning up after them and dealing with the economic situation. Ironically, I have a feeling once the effect of Kenney’s cuts are felt, it might be the thing to prompt a more balanced discussion that the real solution to our financial shortfall not only involves the spending side, but structural issues on the revenue side as well. Until then, its back to riding the PC, now UCP, financial roller coaster – spend when oil prices are high, cut when they are low.

    Reply
  10. Bruce Turton

    September 4th, 2019

    The interview of MacKinnon on the Edmonton, CBC morning radio show elicited first and foremost the ‘master of spin’ rhetoric coming out of her mouth at every question. The turn of phrase was not only cavalier, but masked the doctrinaire boondoggle we shall all be experiencing all too soon. The word “cut” cannot be used, but will be our ‘new world order’ pdq.

    Reply
  11. Farmer Brian

    September 5th, 2019

    In hindsight two issues cost Rachel Notely her job. First was the carbon tax, she could have played it differently and let Justin Trudeau impose a tax and let him take the heat and this relates to the second issue. Jason Kenney worked Albertan’s absolute disdain for Justin Trudeau, Rachel Notley realized far too late that playing nice with Trudeau isn’t popular with the majority of Albertan’s. Today we are now faced with the UCP’s desire to reduce the amount spent on running government services in Alberta. If you say $600 million needs to be cut that sounds like a lot, if you say you want to reduce spending by 1.2% it doesn’t sound as bad but they are one and the same. First off, I didn’t agree with cutting corporate taxes to 8% from 12%, gradually reducing them to 10% would have made far more sense. As far as cutting wages of public service employees, the cost of living increases every year and many have had very little in wage increases over the last 4 years so it would be a tough pill to swallow. Both the previous PC governments and Rachel Notley’s NDP government chose to spend all our resource revenues and that continues today. The up and down in government revenue will continue until the government and all Albertan’s realize that a sales tax in necessary to provide a more stable source of revenue for government services. The oil industry in Alberta will never be the engine it once was, there are too many environmental watermelons( green on the outside red on the inside) in today’s Canada and it is time Albertan’s realize that! Enjoy your day.

    Reply
    • Anonymous

      September 6th, 2019

      You need to be corrected on matters. First of all, Alberta has a carbon tax, because Ed Stelmach put it there. It was North America’s first ever carbon tax. How people forget this basic fact, is beyond me! Jason Kenney did not get rid of Alberta’s carbon tax. We still have it. The oil companies were in support of having a carbon tax long before Rachel Notley, or Justin Trudeau were in power. Stephen Harper also acknowledged the need to have a price put on carbon. It was something like $60.00 per tonne. Also, there are many other taxes that the Alberta PCs gave us. Taxes on alcoholic beverages, on smokes, on beverage containers, (like milk cartons and jugs), with our health care premiums, on motel stays, with VLTs (that’s known as a regressive type of tax), and when purchasing electronic products. Where did this money go? Not to other provinces, and not to Ottawa. What did the Alberta PCs do with it? Reducing corporate taxes from 12% to 10%, is still a bad idea. Oil prices fell drastically, starting in 2014. They even went as low as $35 a barrel. This is from Saudi Arabia and America giving the world loads and loads of cheap oil. There are no more oil booms. So, even a 2% reduction in Alberta’s corporate tax cut is a bad idea. More lost revenue. Ralph Klein’s flat tax, drained billions of dollars from Alberta’s coffers. In 2014, corporations in Alberta owed $1.1 billion in unpaid taxes. For many years prior, corporations in Alberta owed very large amounts of money that the Alberta PCs never collected. The Alberta PCs were thinking of putting in a P.S.T for Alberta, before Alison Redford was premier of Alberta. As for spending all our natural resource revenues, that was the Alberta PCs, after Peter Lougheed left office who did that. The NDP did not do things like the $67 million Gainer’s scandal, the Principle Trust scandal, wasted $110 million on a metal smelting plant screwup, the $600 million NovaTel scandal, the now $5 billion, (and growing), Swan Hills waste treatment plant blunder, (yes it is that cost, from annual added bailouts, that started around 18 years ago), the $180 million Miller West Pulp Mill debacle, the $240 million MagCan scandal, blew almost $500 million, trying to bailout West Edmonton Mall, the $125 million ambulance amalgamation screwup, the $100 million A.I.S.H scandal, (which was complete with Ralph Klein and his colleagues, laughing at and mocking the handicapped on T.V), the $400 million B.S.E bailout failure, the $34.5 billion electricity deregulation disaster, the $7 billion PPA debacle, that went with it, wasted $2 billion on carbon capture and storage, wasted money on luxury penthouse suites, wasted money on expensive plane flights, that had no extra passengers, did the $26 billion Northwest Upgrader fiasco, that had $9 billion in added costs, lost Alberta $10 billion, from Alison Redford’s tobaccogate lawsuit scheme, which she did, and got away with, and so much more. Also, starting with Ralph Klein, the Alberta PCs allowed oil companies in Alberta to get away with not cleaning up any messes they made. Albertans are now on the hook for $260 billion to deal with this. So much for the environmentalists being to blame. Peter Lougheed was quite appalled at how the other Alberta PCs recklessly developed the oilsands. In 1986, the Alberta PCs shifted from getting proper oil royalty rates for our oil, depriving Alberta of $200 billion, or even more. Also, since 1986, the Alberta PCs virtually depleted the Heritage Savings Trust Fund, leaving hardly anything in it. Ralph Klein used it for very costly scandals, like Alpac/Mitsubishi, to help fund his provincial election campaigns, and to help pay off the provincial debt/deficit. The Alberta PCs, after Peter Lougheed left office, badly neglected infrastructure in Alberta, giving Alberta a $26 billion infrastructure debt. Ralph Klein also laid off a plethora of nurses and teachers. Blaming the NDP, or the Federal Liberals for this is foolish. The UCP are behaving exactly the same way. Already, they made $13 billion in very costly mistakes. Jason Kenney is used to taking part in very costly mistakes, because he helped with those in Ottawa, as a CPC MP. The $35 billion income trust scandal, the billions of dollars bailing out the auto sector, and other big mistakes, are prime examples. Doing a multi billion dollar scandal would be natural for any UCP MLA. When is Jason Kenney going to jail for his election fraud and election related crimes? The sooner, the better. Conservatives are big failures and bankrupt every place they govern in. Peter Lougheed, and a very small amount of others are exceptions to that fact.

      Reply
  12. Bob Raynard

    September 5th, 2019

    Another possibility is that Ms. MacKinnon puts out a list of terrifying cuts, then Hero Jason can ride to the rescue by only imposing cuts that are at least milder by comparison.

    If this is correct, where does that leave Dimples? It is generally assumed that Jason Kenney has timed his provincial budget for after the federal election, so as not to scare voters by showing them what a CPC government would look like. In the absence of a more moderate budget, CPC critics can point to Ms MacKinnon’s report as exactly what is coming to Alberta, and by extension an indicator of what we could expect from a CPC government. It makes me wonder if the delayed Alberta budget was Kenney’s idea, or if the CPC asked him to delay. Leaving a terrifying report out there like this could help torpedo Mr. Scheer’s chances, making room for Jason to take a run at the CPC leadership, while at the same time allowing him to claim to be a team player.

    Reply
  13. pogo

    September 5th, 2019

    I really think you should get up and stand up! Now would be a good time! I don’t mean to upset your retirement! https://youtu.be/RhJ0q7X3DLM

    Reply
  14. pogo

    September 5th, 2019

    Get in the game or fuck off!

    Reply
  15. Alan

    September 5th, 2019

    I don’t suppose anyone happened to screen shot or save Brian Topp’s post? It doesn’t appear to be on Facebook anymore.

    Reply
  16. Paul Harmon

    September 9th, 2019

    Good article but must take issue with language. “Radical” was used twice in same paragraph, when, I believe, the correct term is ‘reactionary.’ As I recall, it was Reagan who twisted ‘radical’ and everyone jumped on board and forgot ‘reactionary.’ The ruling class loves how they can control the language.

    Reply
    • David Climenhaga

      September 10th, 2019

      Radical: “A person who advocates thorough or complete political or social reform; a member of a political party or part of a party pursuing such aims.” I believe this usage is quite defensible in this context. DJC

      Reply

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