But before Kenney can sell necessary spending cuts, he will need to show the public that his United Conservative Party politicians and staff have done all they can to trim their own expenses.
So far, the UCP hasn’t done nearly enough.
After more than half a decade of economic hardships in Alberta, Statistics Canada’s recent jobs report landed like a punch to the gut. Since February, more than 360,000 Albertans have lost their job and the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to about 30 percent, after accounting for less hours worked and people who have stopped looking for jobs.
Following the release of this jobs report, Kenney warned that “we’re nowhere close to being out of the woods.”
The financial hardships facing these hundreds of thousands of jobless Albertans is in stark contrast to the financial situation at the Alberta legislature.
There are 19 political staffers in the premier’s office whose annual salaries total about $3 million, as reported by the Medicine Hat News. Ranging from about $114,00 to $224,000, the average salary for these 19 staffers is $155,762.
Incredibly, half a dozen staffers in the premier’s office are raking in more than Kenney himself.
While the cost of political staffers in the premier’s and ministers’ offices is 21 percent below the former New Democrat government’s staff expenses, these six-figure salaries are a tough pill to swallow for the struggling taxpayers signing the cheques.
And as United Conservative MLA Drew Barnes notes, besting the high-spending NDP shouldn’t be a bragging point for a UCP government that promised to champion financial responsibility.
“A comparison to something that was outlandish and overbuilt is not appropriate,” said Barnes.
Finance Minister Travis Toews has repeatedly stressed the importance of bringing government labour costs in line with costs in other provinces.
Kenney has also acknowledged that UCP MLAs “were elected with a mandate to be fiscally responsible and that has to start at the top.”
Unfortunately, the UCP’s rhetoric has been on-point but its bite hasn’t matched its bark.
All MLAs took a five percent pay cut last summer and the premier took a 10 percent cut. But at $121,000 annually, Alberta’s rank-and-file MLAs still earn far more than in other provinces. If MLAs brought their pay in line with the Ontario-West average (excluding Alberta), they would receive $105,120.
Kenney has warned about the tripling of Alberta’s deficit and the “fiscal reckoning” facing the government. It needed to address its ballooning labour costs before COVID-19 and it’s even more important now that the government’s debt could reach $90 billion this year.
But how is Kenney going to sell the necessary spending restraint to the public or the bureaucracy when the average salary for his political staffers is $155,762 and his MLAs are taking home paycheques that are out of step with other provinces?
Kenney must also crack down on political expenses.
The UCP government has already posted some highly questionable expenses, such as the $16,000 charter plane ride to Saskatoon, expensive trips to London and Texas, along with a controversial $905,000 contract given to a law firm as part of the investigation of foreign-funded anti-oil and gas campaigns.
The importance of keeping expenses under control has been magnified given the economic situation and the tough spending decisions coming down the pipe.
It won’t be easy for Kenney and his United Conservatives to fix the province’s ailing finances.
Before they can sell the needed tough remedy to the public, they must be able to show they’re willing to drink their own medicine, reducing salaries and keeping a lid on expenses.
Franco Terrazzano is the Alberta director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.