It’s that time of year again. And right on cue—with the start of a new legislative session in Alberta this week and the provincial budget expected to come down within the next couple of weeks—the province’s right has started loudly delivering clearly contradictory messages on what the government could and should be doing with the economy and its finances.
Two weeks ago the province’s Wildrose opposition issued a press release bemoaning the high number of Albertans currently receiving support from Employment Insurance—apparently the highest number since Statistics Canada started tracking the figure in 1997.
The statement quotes Wildrose leader Brian Jean expressing serious concern about the degree to which “Albertans are suffering and need help,” and lays the blame for the high number of unemployed Albertans directly at the feet of the NDP government and their bad policies which have “played a critical role in creating this depressed job market.”
Of course, the press release does nothing by way of suggesting exactly which policies are putting Albertans out of work, but it does allude to the “government’s high-tax agenda.” That’s a frequently used frame by the Wildrose Party that completely ignores the fact that Alberta remains the lowest taxed jurisdiction in the country by about $7.5 billion.
In fact, an RBC report recently pointed out that even when you calculate provincial revenues as a portion of GDP, Alberta collects far less than any other province. Despite his “alternative facts” about taxation levels and his complete lack of concrete options for putting Albertans back to work, Jean’s concern for unemployed Albertans is admirable.
The question remains: what would Jean and the Wildrose actually do come budget day to fix Alberta’s problems if they were in power? The short answer comes from a release issued by the party on the occasion of the government’s third quarter fiscal update last week: reduce spending and reduce the size of government.
If you like your public policy with a few more specifics than what Jean has offered so far, a good place to look would be a recent Financial Post op-ed penned by Paige MacPherson—Alberta Director for chronic Wildrose cheerleaders—and intellectual guides, the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. In that op-ed, MacPherson points out unequivocally that the right solution to Alberta’s current situation would be to cut government spending by $7.8 billion, get rid of 10 percent of public servants, and resume the Conservative practice of building infrastructure through public private partnerships.
Just to put some of those suggested policies in context, the $7.8 billion MacPherson is proposing be cut from spending is more than the province’s entire K-12 education budget, 10 percent of the public service amounts to some 30,000 people. Numerous in-depth studies have calculated that public private partnerships add on average about 15 percent to the cost of infrastructure.
So, just to be clear, the right solution for helping those thousands of unemployed workers that Jean is so concerned about would be to drastically cut the services those workers rely on now more than ever, put another 30,000 people out of work, and add about a billion dollars to the government’s infrastructure tab. And given the Wildrose’s fixation with their high taxes myth, they would also probably move very quickly to cut taxes and further reduce the amount of money actually coming into the provincial government.
It is often said that one of the advantages of being in opposition is that your policy proposals and your critiques of the government need not be specific, detailed, or fully costed out. But shouldn’t they at least be coherent and consistent? How can you simultaneously express outrage at the deficit and propose reducing government revenues? How can you express concern about the number of unemployed Albertans and advocate putting thousands more out of work? And how can you scream and yell about the high spending on infrastructure and recommend returning to a scheme that will add a billion dollars to those same costs?
Hopefully, come budget time, Albertans will look closely at the actual numbers being put forward by the government and assess their impact on their own merit. In the same way, we all need to take a thorough look at the criticisms and proposals being made by the opposition and their friends and likewise assess the consistency, accuracy, and impacts of what they are putting forth. Albertans might be surprised at what they actually find when they get beyond the sound bites and quips and try to make sense of what is being proposed and by whom.
Ricardo Acuña is the executive director of the Parkland Institute, a non-partisan, public policy research institute housed at the University of Alberta. The views and opinions expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute.