Alberta’s Right-turn Signal is Blinking

Alberta’s United Conservative Party (UCP) swept into power in April 2019.  Alberta has 3 million voters. 1 million voted for the UCP, about 55% of all voters.  That resulted in 63 seats for the UCP and 24 for the New Democrats.  

With a strong majority, the UCP set out to implement its campaign promises.  

  • A combative stance to support the energy sector,
  • Balance the budget in its first term. 
  • Grow investment from the private sector by restoring an ‘open for business’ approach and lowering corporate taxes.  
  • And certainly, part of its plan was to get rid of ‘socialist’ thinking and return to a small ‘c’ conservative philosophy. 

The Big Change Playbook 

It is helpful for Severely Normal Albertans to understand the 4-year game plan that governments use when they make major changes.  This script was pioneered in Alberta by Ralph Klein in the mid 1990s. 

Year One –      “Promise made – promise kept!”  The public and opposition are reminded that the changes were part of the election mandate.

Year Two –      “Don’t blink!” During this year government hunkers down against unpopular cuts; publicly announcing that they will not change direction.

Year Three –    “We feel your pain!” In this year, government reassures the public that it is making progress and minor adjustments smooth some rough edges from the change plan.

Year Four –      “See… that was not so bad!” In advance of an election a kinder and gentler face of government emerges, launching new programs and making popular program adjustments.

For the UCP the main implementation instruments became:

  • A financial review study of costs (but notably not revenue)
  • Advanced education boards of directors were replaced with conservative-minded folks
  • A number of tightly scripted panels, consultations and research was undertaken
  • Government pushed through a conservative legislative agenda despite a strong rear-guard action from the ND.  

A budget released in October 2019, proposed ‘slight austerity’.  Revenue was forecast at $50 billion and expenditures at $58.7.  Cumulative debt held by taxpayers would rise to $63 billion.  

The budget increased costs to students, shifted costs to municipalities and reduced many grants.  In the public service, staff reductions were undertaken. 

The UCP targeted health care as the biggest expenditure area and Alberta’s costs are above provincial averages. They unilaterally canceled an agreement with doctors and changed fee schedules.  Alberta Health Services signaled that 500 jobs over 3 years were on the block.  

Then COVID-19 changed everything!

  • In an instant, the pandemic changed the dynamics; government scrambled and announced $500 million in new health care spending, 
  • The doctor’s public relations efforts fought the government to a standstill and a new bargaining mechanism has been created,
  • Government began signalling significant spending in the face of a dramatic and prolonged economic downturn,
  • Government wants to push through a “pre-COVID-19” budget but it is already signalling that more debt will be incurred, and budget balance is a long way out, and
  • A new panel of economic experts is convened to re-assess Alberta’s economic situation.

Severely Normal Albertans should insist that the intense philosophical battle between conservatives and progressives is shelved in favour of the ‘We are all in this together.’ attitude.  

And a new playbook needs to be written. Alberta’s fiscal situation and weakened economy are going to take a terrifying hit.  Perhaps a new playbook that balances our emergent needs and our long-term future can be found.