Top contenders in Alberta’s conservative politics mirrors our past
It’s like déjà vu all over again.
In the 1993 Alberta general election the two main contenders, Liberal leader Laurence Decore and Progressive Conservative leader Ralph Klein, spent pretty much the entire campaign trying to out-right-wing each other. Both of them fully embraced the messages of fundamentalist neoliberalism and extreme capitalism that had been on such prominent display in the previous decade from the likes of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.
Decore promised “deep cuts” to government spending and public services while Klein promised “brutal cuts.”
Both promised an end to deficit spending, accelerated elimination of the provincial debt, lower taxes, thousands of public sector layoffs, and extensive privatization of public function. It didn’t matter that Alberta already had the lowest spending in the country, the lowest taxes, and an economy that was in the process of recovering from the recession of the ‘80s, both Klein and Decore were able to make the entire campaign about prescribing a course of extreme austerity to solve a crisis that didn’t exist.
Fast-forward to the creation of the United Conservative Party (UCP) and the early salvos thrown by the aspirants to the new party’s throne, and you would never know that the past 24 years had happened. In a point in time when austerity-based neoliberal policy has been largely discredited around the world because of its effect on inequality and extreme wealth concentration at the top, and when populations in places like the United States, Britain, and Western Europe are starting to seek alternatives to the damaging economic policies of the past 30 years, in Alberta the folks seeking to lead the UCP are still campaigning as if it was 1993.
Brian Jean, the first of the potential leaders to officially declare himself for the leadership race, and the first to release a platform, went so far as to even borrow and update one of Ralph Klein’s old slogans in adopting the slogan “The New Alberta Advantage.” His platform includes $2.6 billion worth of spending cuts, cuts to individual taxes, small business taxes, and corporate taxes, hiring freezes in the public service, firing “managers” across the public service, the elimination of the carbon tax, and a return to balanced budgets within three years. He’s also promising to eliminate one-third of existing government regulations, fight the federal government in court over the proposed federal carbon tax, and make an increased number of decisions through referenda.
Of course, Jean doesn’t specify which managers would be fired, doesn’t seem to understand that many people in government whose positions are labelled manager are actually front-line staff, and offers no explanation for how he will reduce billions from government revenue through tax reductions, pay for an expensive court case against the feds, and still balance the books in three years. Meanwhile, MLA Derek Fildebrandt, who has not officially declared himself for the leadership but is apparently considering it, went on record criticizing Jean’s platform for being too timid. The suggestion, of course, being that what’s needed are deeper more brutal spending cuts and a more rapid move to eliminate the deficit and the debt. He also published a blog on his United Liberty page essentially declaring war on organized labour and suggesting that what is needed is for the government to undo 50 years of legislation and Supreme Court decisions protecting the rights of workers and unions.
Jason Kenney, who has now also officially entered the UCP leadership race, has yet to release anything resembling a platform. His speeches to date have focused on the supposed assault on Alberta by the federal government, Alberta’s “crippling” debt, and the fact that the provincial government has “ruined” the economy and “mortgaged” our future. He has suggested that Alberta’s identity and free enterprise are “under assault” and vows to make sure that a new social studies curriculum for the province highlight’s Canada’s military and Confederation history. The fact that he repeatedly labels the current, centrist NDP government as socialist, and has promised to undo every one of the policies they have passed, speaks to just how radical and retrograde he plans to be as leader.
In Alberta, the province’s newest political party seems to be not so new after all, with the reliance of its aspiring leaders on the old school language, ideas, and policies that got us into this mess in the first place. Brian Jean said recently “gone are the days when hard-right governments are going to be successful in Alberta.” Perhaps it’s time that he and his fellow UCPers took that understanding to heart and stopped trying to relive 1993.