CALGARY, Alta. April 15, 2016/ Troy Media/ – No one could miss the theatrics of Rachel Notley’s infomercial last week. The kitchen table, where her family gathers to make plans, was covered by a light green tablecloth. To her left was an old Tory blue pot filled with fruit expressing the NDP livery: shiny oranges and green Granny Smith apples.
Visual clues combined with strategic purpose: she sought to get in front of yesterday’s bad-news budget. She wanted to tell us that Alberta’s problems are not the NDP’s fault. They are managing “the serious problem handed to us by the international economy.” She praised her government for two major achievements.
First, Alberta has avoided “reckless cutbacks.” What does this mean?
On the very day that the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers noted that 110,000 jobs had been lost in Alberta and that investment had declined 62 per cent, the NDP told us the salaries of a few politicians and of some of North America’s best paid bureaucrats would not be increased. No reckless cutbacks there.
There have been no responsible cutbacks either. In fact, there has been no shrinkage in the size of government and no downsizing of any public-sector union. Indeed, Stats Canada reported that Alberta has been blessed with an annual increase of 32,000 public sector employees.
Nor have there been wage cuts for bureaucrats. Why not?
Well, you see, according to the NDP, neither wage reductions nor lay-offs is needed. We can maintain robust public sector numbers (unlike the poor suckers in the private sector) and pay them handsomely simply by raising taxes and taking on debt. If ordinary Albertans enjoyed the new tax hikes – and some of us enjoyed them so much we left the province – they will rejoice when the new carbon taxes kick in. Notley calls the new tax regime “fair.”
A second message has been repeated for two generations: we must “foster diversification” because we are “dangerously dependent on the price of oil.”
Consider the alternatives. We cannot accumulate a sovereign wealth fund because we are not sovereign. We can’t even build up the Heritage Fund because doing so would attract the predatory attention of Laurentian Canada. Besides, we are in fact diversifying. In 1985 we had a GDP of $70 billion, about a third of which was energy; in 2013 the GDP was five time as great and energy accounted for less than a quarter.
As Ralph Klein learned, the most rational response to a decline in resource revenue is to cut expenditures. In contrast, Notley has chosen to accumulate an impressive debt; we are still dependent on resources revenue to pay it off, of course, but now we’re also dependent on the banks.
Notley did announce a shift on pipelines. The same person who opposed Northern Gateway and refused to advocate for Keystone XL now (twice) mentioned a need to “get Canadian energy to new markets.” Today “we must get to ‘yes’ on a pipeline.”
Better late than never, but how? Alas, she still labours under two massive delusions. The first is that Alberta’s previous environmental policy was the reason why the enviros opposed pipelines to tidewater and that her Climate Leadership Plan solved the problem.
Rachel, listen: the enviros want to shut down forever the “filthy, dirty, planet-killing” oil sands. End of story.
A second delusion is like unto it: the “divisive battles” of the past that she wishes to avoid in the future are coming, like it or not. You can avoid them only if you give up on pipelines. If you won’t, prepare for battles. If you do, prepare to leave and take the tablecloth with you.
Barry Cooper is a professor of political science at the University of Calgary.
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