The current government doesn’t quite sound like the New Democrats
It seems like Alberta’s NDP government has been in something of a Jekyll and Hyde mode over the last few weeks.
On the one hand, their introduction of Bill 30 with its significant and long-overdue changes to the Workers Compensation Board (WCB) and occupational health and safety was entirely in keeping with traditional NDP positions around the WCB, workers’ rights, and government and employer responsibilities when it comes to worker safety and well-being.
Likewise, their continuation of the tuition freeze for post-secondary education is entirely consistent with a long-standing NDP commitment to increased access and affordability in advanced education for Albertans. The tuition freeze, which has been in place since they first got elected in 2015, has resulted in Alberta moving from having some of the highest tuition fees in the country to being somewhere in the middle of the pack, and continuing the freeze will only improve that position.
When it comes to the economy and government finances, however, the government has been sounding like anything but New Democrats. It started in mid-November when Premier Rachel Notley told the Alberta Association of Municipal Districts and Councils (AAMDC) that “the same steady approach that saw us through the recession is going to see us carefully and compassionately tighten our belts.” Notley followed up that statement by stating that the government is seeking to negotiate “common sense” agreements with public sector unions, but didn’t actually provide a definition of “common sense” in that context.
Then, while delivering the second quarter fiscal update in late November, finance minister Joe Ceci also trotted out the concept of “compassionate belt-tightening,” signaling that was the path his government would follow to achieve fiscal balance. While responding to reporters after the update, Ceci actually provided a further explanation of what they meant by “common sense” agreements, pointing to the agreement reached with the Alberta Teachers’ Association earlier this year which provided for a two-year wage freeze. “We’re looking for more common-sense settlements like those we negotiated with teachers, which provide job stability in return for no raises and better services for our kids,” said Ceci. The implication, of course, is that if there are raises then there will be no job stability–certainly not a very New Democrat type position when it comes to public services and public sector workers.
Ceci then went even further, announcing that there would be a hiring freeze in the public service in general and “hiring restraint” in education and health care, although it is unclear exactly what the difference is between a freeze and strengthened restraint.
A few days later, while on his way out of a meeting with eight of Canada’s leading economists to talk about Alberta’s current economic situation, Ceci made clear to reporters that his government would not consider a PST or tax increases because “Albertans don’t want it”. He then doubled down on the spending restraint messaging by stating that “We’re looking at the spending side … to bring our budget back to balance. That’s the focus for this government.”
Minister Ceci reportedly apologized to union leaders after his fiscal update, stating that he had misspoken and chosen his words poorly. Regardless of the words chosen, however, the message is clear: the government is seeking to eliminate a $10 billion deficit by dealing only with the expenditure side of the equation, and that will have serious implications for public services, public sector salaries and job security, and infrastructure.
The Premier’s statement to the AAMDC last month suggested that although the government held the line on spending during the economic downturn, now that the economy is clearly in recovery we can begin to reduce spending. Lost in that messaging is the historical New Democrat position that public services in Alberta were near crisis levels after 20 years of Conservative austerity and that the status quo was entirely unacceptable—that new and increased funding was desperately needed.
Albertans are familiar with messages from their government suggesting that we need to tighten our belts, stop the growth in public sector wages and hiring, and that what we have is a spending problem not a revenue problem. We are familiar with those messages because we’ve been hearing them since 1993. And Alberta’s NDP has spent the better part of the last 25 years adamantly opposing those messages, until now.
Albertans supported the NDP in 2015 knowing full well what the party’s historical values and economic philosophies were. Had they wanted another fiscally conservative government, there was no shortage of options on the ballot.
Ultimately, the government will have to realize that they can’t be both Jekyll and Hyde at the same time. They need to either fully embrace their historical New Democrat principles and values and fix the province’s chronic revenue shortfall to do so, or become just one more conservative party in Alberta. Budget 2018 will give a strong signal of which avenue they have chosen.