“Conservative” governments never like to let a crisis go to waste.

Dr. John Cowell, sole administrator of Alberta Health Services (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

Hence the concept of “disaster capitalism,” which author Naomi Klein so chillingly described in 2007 as the end result of the Shock Doctrine of modern neoliberal economics. 

The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was a tragedy for thousands of Albertans and Canadians and their families. 

But it also created a catastrophe in our health care system that is now being used by conservative governments across Canada to justify more privatization of public health care to, as Alberta deceptively claimed in a news release in late January, “ensure that Albertans have access to the care they need, when and where they need it.”

“Working with chartered surgical facility providers is another strategy to help Albertans get the surgeries they need faster,” said John Cowell, the sole administrator of Alberta Health Services appointed by Premier Danielle Smith. When he says chartered, by the way, he means private. 

Everyone who is paying attention – and that would most certainly include Dr. Cowell’s nervous advisors at AHS – understands that is not what is going to happen when there is already a shortage of health-care professionals to do the surgeries. 

Alberta Premier Danielle Smith (Photo: Alberta Newsroom/Flickr).

This is easy to understand. It happens because private clinics draw limited resources and personnel from the public health care system, already under stress from the pandemic. The result in short order is faster treatment for a few patients with money and pull, and longer wait times for the rest of us.

As for the part about needing more money, as is well known, Premier Smith has a plan for that as well. She wrote an essay about it in 2021, too recently for her to claim it was just a youthful fling with a crazy idea. What we need to do to fix the health care system, she wrote, “is to generate $4 billion from new user fees.” (Emphasis added.)

We can no longer afford universal social programs that are 100 per cent paid by taxpayers,” she argued in the paper, published by the University of Calgary’s notoriously right-wing School of Public Policy. “The only option is to allow people to use more of their own money to pay their own way …”

“Once people get used to the concept of paying out of pocket for more things themselves then we can change the conversation on health care,” she said. And a little later, “we could take it one step further. … If we establish the principle of Health Spending Accounts, then we can also establish co-payments.

This plan appears to be being implemented before our eyes without much controversy. 

Meanwhile, the UCP is apparently prepared to take the Shock Doctrine a step farther than has been observed in Canada and create a disaster of its own that will require a shock to correct – although, as Ms. Klein pointed out in her book, intentionally created disasters are not unheard of in other lands. 

University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe (Photo: Twitter/Trevor Tombe).

In an op-ed published by the CBC last week, University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe wrote that Finance Minister Travis Toews’s Feb. 28 budget is going to remake the famous Alberta energy rollercoaster a much more terrifying new ride. 

“Spending is set to exceed $68 billion this year, higher than the government’s own previous plan of $64 billion for 2023-24 set only three months ago, and more than $9 billion more than what Budget 2021 envisioned for this year,” Dr. Tombe wrote. “It is even higher than the previous NDP government had planned to spend this year, if that party had remained in power.”

“The problem is that this new spending is paid for with an incredibly unreliable source: non-renewable resource revenues,” he continued, adding this understatement: “This is neither disciplined nor particularly responsible.”

He explained that with royalty rates rising as energy facilities pay off their initial capital investments, which were subsidized by the province through reduced royalty rates, each dollar change in oil prices is worth more to the government than before – or costs more, depending on which way the prices are moving. 

Here is the money quote, as it were, from Dr. Tombe’s argument: “For the quarter-century before COVID, a $1 change in oil barrel prices typically meant less than a $200 million increase or decrease to government revenues. Today, that same change is worth $630 million. I estimate by 2025, it will be $850 million.

“If you thought the rollercoaster Alberta was on before was scary, just wait.”

Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein (Photo: Kourosh Keshiri/NaomiKlein.org).

In her essay, written when oil revenues were low, Premier Smith argued that was the perfect time “to permanently wean Albertans off their energy royalty dependence. … It’s time to bite the bullet and say that this is the most resource revenue we will ever spend on operational needs again.”

It doesn’t require a tinfoil hat to see that Mr. Toews’s budget is creating the conditions for a bigger bust than we’ve ever seen in Alberta.

And, as veteran Alberta political observers know well, that means a quick return to another brutal dose of austerity, privatization, and disaster capitalism. 

First we create the shock. Then we implement the Shock Doctrine to restore “the Alberta Advantage.”

Well, perhaps this is just the UCP being innovative and forward looking. No natural disaster is required to justify bad economic policies. 

We’re quite capable of generating our own disasters right here in quasi-sovereign Alberta!

Note to readers: I will be on the road on business this week and next and may not be able to file posts as frequently as I would like given everything that’s happening in Alberta right now. I hope to return to my normal publication schedule after that. DJC

Join the Conversation


  1. COVID both exposed weaknesses in our health care system and the stresses and srains it caused led to additional problems.

    Here in Alberta the UCP was in full restraint mode when COVID unexpectedly hit and it was reluctant and slow to reverse course.

    The UCP still seems eager to undermine public health care, if you believe Smith’s past words. While her tune has changed somewhat because she is facing an election soon, there is no reason to believe her views really have. I suspect what Smith said when she was not in politics is a more accurate indication of what she really believes.

    So I doubt the supposedly kinder gentler Smith will last much past the election, if she somehow manages too fool enough people to get back in.

  2. Typically Alberta governments who ignore the long term effects of oil price shocks do so at their extreme peril. And I recall more than a decade ago, it was claimed by many an Alberta politician, regardless of their partisan stripe, that oil prices would easily top $200. Why worry? Every Albertan will be rich forever.

    These days, contingencies to ween Alberta off the fossil fuel roller coaster have taken on the air of the conspiratorial. A pipeline to Hudson’s Bay and brand new massive deep water port and oil terminal is the crazy that’s taken seriously these days. Why not convince Northern BC to separate from Canada? All Calgary has to do is buy the provincial government there and it’s done.

    The adults have left and they’re never coming back.

  3. Of course those with more means should contribute more to their health care … but through higher taxes going into the common pool from which health care is funded, while still maintaining the essential principle that the next surgery, procedure or appointment goes to the person in the most need, not the one with the thickest wallet. That’s the only just and equitable system we can create.

  4. There is no easy fix for the mess that the UCP and previous PC governments have created by allowing their brains to be infected by the ideologies of the Calgary School and its antecedents, such as Chicago School of economics. Combine this with the capture of the government by the O&G industry that ensures we do not receive a fair share of royalties and that we end up paying for cleaning up its pollution (tailings pond and orphaned and abandoned wells), and we have a disaster in the making. When the O&G industry abandons us, as they will, the crash will be hard because we have squandered our good fortune and have not prepared for this event.

    A good first step might be to toss the UCP to the curb, which I fear is easier said than done.

  5. “Chartered surgical facility providers” sounds a lot like “charter schools”, but I digress.

    Isn’t it funny how the head of AHS, albeit it a temp, can live in Calgary and travel to work in a chauffeured vehicle at public expense, but the head of Athabasca University must live in Athabasca? Maybe Alberta Health Services could be renamed Calgary Health Services for a few months. Here I go, digressing again.

    “…To allow people to use more of their own money to pay their own way” because the people who are citizens of this province are parasites, parasites, I tells ya! …in Smith’s mind. She will play reverse Robin Hood with $20-billion of the citizens’ own money, giving it to oil companies currently rolling in profits. Oil companies already remove our public resources at considerable profit, but Smith wants them to plunder five times more than the cost of public health. On one single cash grab, to clean up the mess they’ve left. Why? Why would we allow this?Sounds like a foolish parent rewarding an indolent golden child with an allowance bonus for not doing their chores. Who’s the real parasite here?

    The next thing you know, Smith will be telling us if she will “allow” us to spend some of our own money for food and shelter. She probably wants to give all that to the poor oil companies, too. After all, this is the government that thinks people spend their money foolishly on Cheezies. Surely the poor oil companies could make better use of it.

    Look in the mirror, Danielle Smith. Math is hard.

  6. It never ceases to amaze me how stupid the UCP folks are. Is there anyone with half a brain there? They keep spewing how great BC, Ontario and Quebec are and we need to be more like them. Sadly the UCP follow directly the same policies that failed in BC. For example, they followed the idea to cut corporate income taxes in favor of job creation. Just like in BC, it cost the coffers billions of dollars and no new jobs. Likewise BC is moving away from private surgery centers while Alberta and Ontario are jumping right into it. There has never been a better time to get rid of the UCP than now. Sadly the tiny give away of pennies may trick some stupid voters to vote for the UCP.

  7. More of Double Crossin Dani’s “Just don’t get sick!” Health care policy! Ambos will now have to abandon patients at the ER door 45 mins after arrival no matter what!

  8. This morning I listened to a CBC Radio interview with the CEO of petro-giant Cenovus Energy, Alex Pourbaix, as he pitched his vision for the industry. As diplomatic as host Matt Galloway tried to be, a few stark problems were soon apparent: the CEO’s language was euphemistic in the extreme which, in the mounting climate-change circumstances we’ve been in for some time now, is probably the only way his pitch could be taken seriously, considering the petro-industry, now dominated by bitumen mining in Alberta, accounts for one-quarter of Canada’s GHG emissions, and the consumption of its by-products, dominated by fuels, for much of the remainder.

    Galloway’s style is non-confrontational so Pourbaix easily parried with the obvious, oft-heard points about reducing societies’ so-called “carbon footprint.” Yet the CEO’s language was so presumptuous—in addition to euphemistic—that Galloway didn’t really need a gotcha. At points Pourbaix sounded like a carny huckster.

    The most glaring features were that Pourbaix puts a lot of faith in sequestration—but only if government pays for it, he citing the forecast for lower oil prices as the pandemic disruption settles down—basically crying ‘poverty.’ (Remember: it’s not even known if sequestration will physically, never mind feasibly work.) His corollary was that industry would need to expand and employ nuclear energy, presuming rising demand for fossil fuels, in order for sequestration to be feasible. Pourbaix’s most frequently spewed argot was the notion that the industry could become 100% “decarbonized,” given enough time, expansion, government subsidy—and, I guess, a total reform of the periodic table of elements—let’s say, a “sovereign periodic table” independent of all others.

    One hardly knows where to begin a critique of this breathtakingly self-interested and fanciful forecast. It’s hard to imagine that the UCP’s budget, which only makes sense if Cenovus’ vision is taken as gospel, is mere coincidence. Therefore, without further ado, the glaring problems Pourbaix’s vision glossed over really, really a lot may be closely equated with Travis Toews’ budget: it has glaring problem’s, too, and for much the same reasons.

    I suspect the maiden UCP government whose impressive 2019 victory promised high flight looks, in retrospect, like it barely got fledged. Bet that it will be pulling out all the stops to avoid ending up with its beak stuck fast into the ground. To do that, it must concoct a narrative that distracts from its greatest weakness, its healthcare record and goals, and it must focus on it with enthusiastic loudness, if not with logic or fact.

    That enthusiasm will be closely coordinated with Cenovus’ sequestration plea, except that, being government, it will be hectored by a Loyal Opposition which will doubtlessly focus on the UCP’s long tail of healthcare failures and long nose of Covid falsehoods—and a tail and a nose, being at opposite ends, presents magpie opportunities, regardless the size of the cat.

    Rookie premier Danielle Smith has already hinted at what that distracting narrative will be, and it won’t be reiteration of Big Bitumen’s fossil-fuel fantasy future but, rather, the shrill blaming of a single scapegoat, as große Lüge tactics recommend: if the NDP Opposition can be made out nothing less than the destroyer of Alberta’s petroleum industry, then blaming it for the healthcare mess should be relatively easy —even though the NDP had nothing to do with the administration of public healthcare during the Covid pandemic and, indeed, did its job perfectly by raising warranted criticism of the UCP’s completely botched Covid policy and recommending better alternatives. The difference between the two parties is that when market forces inevitably threaten the viability of bitumen production one promises to catch workers felled by layoffs and protect the public weal challenged by economic change, the other promises to continue cushioning corporate interests whenever they feel investment returns are running a bit low.

    It’s only typical of this flightless UCP chimera that it can be absolutist about what it deems right and wrong, but as relativist as it needs to be when massaging or dispensing with the truth.

    It’s should be frightful thing to Albertans to admit that fear-mongering is a powerful persuader, even if it’s horrifyingly inarticulate or terrifyingly false. We already know that the UCP will respond with rote insouciance that, despite the plain truth, there simply is no problem with healthcare, not with Kenney’s Covid train-wreck nor with Smith’s worrisome privatization plan. The NDP will be hard pressed to get a usable rise out of a caucus so-instructed.

    Instead, bet on the UCP trying to put the NDP on the defensive, not only by accusing it for doing something it didn’t really do—like make a total hash of Covid response—, but also for things it never said it would do—like “transition” from a bitumen-dominated economy by shutting down the whole industry immediately if, the UCP will direly warn, the NDP ever gets back into power. The UCP will ring the alarm as loudly as the party itself is alarmed by the prospect of receiving the defeat it so richly deserves.

    Naturally such accusations have absolutely no basis in truth but, if the Cenovus CEO’s bafflegab is any indication—and I see little reason to assume it won’t be paraphrased incessantly by campaigning UCP candidates —it’s relatively difficult to parry with.

    If I were the NDP, I would expose the many evasions, distortions, and untruths Mr Pourbaix spouted on The Current this morning, and I would do it today before it gets even more weaponized by the UCP Than it is already. May’s well get out in front of this one because Alberta’s energy dilemma is way more complicated than the simple fact that the UCP couldn’t run a hospital flower shop, let alone a massive public healthcare system.

    Finally, there is no crisis in either public healthcare or the bitumen industry—not unless the gang that says there is wins re-election. If the NDP wins in 84 days from today it can relieve whatever crisis the UCP has created in healthcare by simply not doing what the UCP has been doing or is planning to do (the ancient Taoist principle of wu wei). And there’s plainly no crisis in the Bitumen Mines of Albetar, nor has the NDP ever entertained shutting the industry down like Smith accuses it of: Rachel Notley simply has to ask, “whose dilbit pipeline is bigger? K-Boy’s or mine?”

    It’s a ‘can’t-look-away’ question.

  9. Laugh, “Conservative” governments never like to let a crisis go to waste.”

    You mean like the progressives and covid mandates?

    And yes, those self same covid mandates caused mental health and substance abuse problems that somebody has to deal with.

    As to investing in natural resource production that helps you pay for your healthcare? What other plan is there?

    The US is buying up all of the unicorn wranglers.

    1. Bret: Covid mandates (tracing and quarantine) came from medical practice, the effectiveness of which has been established over literally hundreds of years of containing various pandemics predating both Marx and Adam Smith.

      Like some, you seem to be confused between the energy transition to renewables which is being driven by basic economics, and the loss of oil patch jobs which is being driven by automation. These are the same forces of automation which have let farms get bigger with fewer farmers.

      Almost all the new electrical generation in Alberta’s grid is renewable, simply because wind, solar, and electrical storage are the cheapest way to produce electricity.

      The question for Alberta is not “who will produce the last barrel of oil?” The real question is who will burn the last liter of gasoline or diesel? I am betting the last gallon of diesel will be burnt on a farm to produce food. When the current fleet of tractors and combines reach the end of their useful life in 20 years, I hope I am around to see their replacements, but I would not place a bet on how they will be fueled.

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