“It’s the economy, stupid,” Bill Clinton declared in his successful bid for the U.S. presidency in 1992.
Today, in Alberta, worried citizens feel the same zeitgeist that Clinton captured so concisely for Americans 27 years ago. Now, citizens of this province must choose their medicine carefully, looking for authentic remedies amidst all the snake oil as they prepare to vote on April 16.
It’s not easy to do when election-time claims and counterclaims muddy the picture.
The incumbent NDP, led by Premier Rachel Notley, is prescribing continued doses of stimulus spending, incurring increased provincial debt to ‘create’ jobs while the province weathers a brutal economic downturn. For the troubled oil and gas sector, Notley promised this week, for example, to double incentives from $3.6 billion to $7 billion over the coming decade.
The New Democratic Party also wants to help ship up to 120,000 barrels per day of oil by rail by July, build a $2-billion upgrading facility near Edmonton, fund 16 clean energy projects and invest $8 billion in private-sector facilities that will turn Alberta propane into recyclable plastic.
The NDP says it will balance the budget by 2023, without a new sales tax, payroll tax or health-care premiums.
Would-be premier Jason Kenney offers a vastly different plan from his United Conservative Party (UCP). It’s focused on cutting red tape, regulations and the cost of doing business.
Initiatives include killing the province’s carbon tax, cutting red tape for new energy projects, ending wind and solar subsidies, creating a ministry to identify and cut regulations that hold back investment and job creation, rolling back the minimum wage from $15 to $13 an hour for those 17 or younger, trying to back out of a $3.7-billion deal to ship more oil by rail, cutting the corporate tax rate from 12 per cent to eight by 2022, and repealing workplace safety standards and injury coverage for farm workers.
Kenney also promises to freeze government spending until the budget is back in balance.
There’s more to each party’s platforms but those are the top lines.
As the real-life experience of government after government has shown, claims of reaching a balanced budget don’t impress us much. Governments count on voters having short memories on such things – as the federal Liberals did when leader Justin Trudeau promised during the last election that the country would stop incurring new debt by the end of this year. The revised goal? The 2040-41 budget year.
The real question for Albertans is which approach will create a healthier business environment. The NDP philosophy, in essence, is that government money is needed to trigger investment that would not otherwise come our way. The UCP, on the other hand, advocates for getting government out the way so free-enterprisers can do their thing.
This week, the Chambers of Commerce in Edmonton and Calgary spoke out on behalf of businesses in their communities. The asked that the next government “remove barriers to drive business growth and act immediately to reduce business costs and regulatory burdens that are limiting economic growth and community prosperity.”
They warned that “our competitive advantages continue to be challenged by layered costs from increased taxes, fees and expensive new regulations from all levels of government.”
While the message extends beyond the province, the chambers cited the “rushed increase to the minimum wage, higher corporate taxes, the introduction of a carbon tax and new employment standards and labour code changes” – all NDP government initiatives.
What neither of the two leading parties admits is the simple fact that a lot of our economic future is beyond the ability of the provincial government to control. Much as many Albertans wish it, for example, there’s no pipeline to take our crude oil to markets beyond the U.S. and there won’t be one for as long as Prime Minister Trudeau continues to try to pander to both sides.
So Albertans must decide whether they think it’s best to buy our future through taxpayer subsidies of new industry or to simply cut taxes and regulations – and pray that investment flows back in.
Those are the economics. Adding complexity to the decision, though, is the social backstory. The NDP is closely identified with progressive social policy while the UCP is dealing with such black eyes as an alleged scandal over how Kenney won the party leadership, and the resurfacing of a 19-year-old speech by Kenney that some see as anti-gay.
There are other parties in Alberta but none in a position to form government this time around. So, of the two front runners, one party is socially progressive but fiscally sloppy; the other is business-friendly but morally suspect. One is reminded of lyrics from the old Stealers Wheel song about clowns to the left and jokers to the right.
Faced with this Hobson’s choice, could we just vote for “none of the above?”
One is left wondering whether there could be a third way. How about a socially progressive, fiscally conservative party?
Nah! How could that ever work?
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media.