There are few Albertans who would argue that in 2019 the province’s finances don’t need a significant overhaul. Most, in fact, would argue that it probably needed to start four years ago when Rachel Notley’s NDP were swept into power. The truth of the matter is the province should have started living within its means a long time before that, under successive Progressive Conservative regimes that treated oil and gas revenues like a program-spending piggy bank, frittering away Alberta’s non-renewable resource legacy and saving little to nothing for the future.
One only needs to take a glancing look at the history of Peter Lougheed’s Heritage Fund to see that putting away a multi-billion dollar trust for future generations of Albertans when pipelines run dry and gushers become dusters didn’t rate very highly for previous conservative governments. Between 1980 and 2014, although the province took in a whopping $190 billion in oil and gas revenues during that period, the value of the Heritage Fund was only $17.3 billion. It would be hard for anyone to argue that’s a glowing example of prudent financial planning with revenues from a resource that will someday be gone.
Despite much compelling evidence that confirms the previous government can’t be solely responsible for the state of the coffers and a dismal economy, the NDP are still the whipping boy of the province’s conservatives, who like to blame debt, over spending, and failure to exercise fiscal restraint on a one-term government that took over Alberta during a period of economic downturn. They seem to conveniently forget 44 previous years of PC dominance and a financial house handed over to the NDP that was a far cry from anyone’s idea of order. And while the Notley government certainly didn’t prove itself to be a cost-cutting behemoth and pushed ahead with heavy spending that grew debt and left a bloated deficit, it’s simply erroneous to blame all of the province’s financial woes on pie-in-the-sky socialism.
But politics is politics, and the NDP make for the perfect scapegoat in Premier Kenney’s new UCP Alberta. To be fair, most new governments blame current problems on previous governments with liberal abandon, at least for a few years. Once they have to start standing on their own record, on the other hand, that chorus of criticism starts to fall on deaf ears. Despite the UCP’s heavy emphasis during the spring election campaign on job creation, recent numbers — 14,000 job losses in Alberta in July — would seem to suggest that in the short term at least the province’s cloudy skies have yet to be replaced by blinding sunbeams of success.
Last week, in an announcement that largely flew under the radar with the prime minister’s ethics violation dominating headlines, the UCP’s Blue Ribbon Panel delivered its report to government on Alberta’s financial situation. It won’t be released publicly by the UCP for several weeks, but whatever is contained within its pages is sure to be the opening salvo on a series of battle fronts including the budget, program cuts, public sector wages, the privatization debate and infrastructure investments. Speculation is rampant in Alberta about what the October budget might look like, and with all aspects of government funding under the UCP microscope, the report will certainly serve as ammunition for any moves that are likely to create a firestorm of controversy among the electorate.
And while there are sure to be a few fiscal detonations, there is a very real fear the UCP may be readying a carpet bombing campaign on program spending and services that will leave the province a vastly leaner entity than the oily octopus of gargantuan government that has swam in Edmonton’s waters for decades. Alberta is in dire need of fiscal restraint and reform, and we can only hope the UCP plan to take a measured approach to cost cutting and program spending.
Ushering in a Klein-era fire sale in an effort to trim the province’s vast waistband will only be more evidence of Alberta’s boom-and-bust short-sightedness, and that the temptation to open the spending floodgates when times are good has been nearly irresistible for any politician in Alberta. Whatever the outcome or the approach, we need to learn something from past mistakes or we risk the same cycle coming full circle again.