If you’ve spent any time at all in the last few months scrolling through social media, listening to talk radio or reading the op-ed pages in Alberta’s major newspapers, you have no doubt seen and heard the chorus of criticisms from Alberta’s political right about the government’s economic policies.
Spearheaded by the usual suspects on the province’s extreme right—the Canadian Taxpayers Federation (CTF), the Canadian Federation of Independent Business (CFIB), Rebel Media, the Wildrose Party—all of the postings, messages and news releases seem to follow the same format and use the same language.
Whether in response to the proposed carbon tax, farmworker safety, investment in infrastructure, renewed progressivity in the income-tax system or the increased minimum wage, the reaction always reads like some crazed mad lib warning of dire consequences. The policy in question is always risky, dangerous or socialist, and will result in the decimation of some industry and put some made-up number of Albertans out of work. For proof of the imminent disaster, they simply seem to quote each other: the Wildrose Party cites a survey from the CFIB, Rebel Media quotes the Wildrose Party, and the CFIB and CTF—when they’re not quoting the Fraser Institute—simply quote each other.
What this well-orchestrated chorus of doom and gloom has completely neglected to do, however, is offer up any credible alternatives beyond organizing a recall of the government. Not one of these groups has offered up an alternative budget that might detail how they propose cutting
$5 to $6 billion in provincial spending. None of them has laid out a plan for actually reducing the province’s carbon footprint without a carbon tax and investment in renewables. The best they seem to be able to offer is demanding that the policy in question not be implemented. That’s it. Fix the problem by maintaining the status quo.
The Wildrose opposition did call for an emergency debate in the legislature on the social cost of the economic downturn and state of the economy, but there was no indication that they wanted to do anything about it but debate. The party’s press release on the subject suggested that, somehow, simply having a debate would “show Albertans that we are working towards ways to bring back economic stability and reduce unemployment.” It also suggested that “the risky NDP economic policies” were compounding the problems caused by the bottom falling out of oil prices.
The implication in all these messages seems to be that if we keep taxes low, don’t reduce climate emissions, keep wages low, stop spending on health care and education, fire a bunch of government workers and do whatever the oil patch wants, then our economy will improve and stabilize, people will start hiring again and all Albertans will be happy, healthy and rich.
The problem with that prescription is that it is completely disconnected from reality. Our provincial economy and our government finances are a mess right now because after 20 years of low taxes, low government spending and the lowest minimum wage in the country, oil and gas became the only show in town. When the price of oil dropped, which it has been known to do on occasion, there was nowhere else for people to work and no sustainable source of government revenues. Yet somehow, these folks would like us to believe that returning to that state of affairs would yield growth and stability for everyone.
You can’t say government finances are a mess while leaving taxes where they were. You can’t complain about the impacts of job losses and then advocate laying off thousands of public-sector workers. And you can’t say you want a vibrant and stable economy while advocating for policies that leave us dependent on oil and gas.
Opposition parties and advocacy groups have a critical job in a democracy. Part of that job is to critique government policies and hold them accountable to the public. The other part of that job is to highlight options and put forth workable alternatives so that citizens can determine for themselves if the government is working in their interests or if there is a better way. So far, Alberta’s right has failed miserably on that second front, suggesting that either there are no workable alternatives to what the government is doing, or that they are happy to abdicate that portion of their public responsibility. Hopefully the new year will bring a commitment from these groups to stop opposing for the sake of ideological rhetoric and start proposing for the sake of the public interest. Albertans deserve no less.V
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta.