Thursday, April 23, 2020

Can Jason Kenney Become the Premier Alberta Now Needs?

As Premier Kenney surveys the province at the end of his first year as Premier, he must be wondering whether moving back to Alberta from Ottawa was a good idea.

Alberta now has a cancelled future: (a) COVID-19 has broken the economic strategy the UCP was pursing – reduce public spending and balance the budget on the back of a restored focus on oil and gas; (b) stimulate economic growth through lowering taxes for corporations; (c) privatize where they could, so as to permanently create markets for public goods and services and transfer public assets to private hands; (d) reward the already wealthy, ignore the poor – they will soon get the message.It is a classic neo-liberal strategy for a Petrostate.

Instead, we face: (a) a collapse in demand, price and interest in Alberta oil – investors are abandoning the sector; (b) $20 billion deficit and an even bigger debt than anyone imagined; (c) a complete lack of return on the $4.7 billion tax give away to profitable corporations – they spent the extra cash on share buy-backs, increased executive pay, investments in technology that lower labour costs, reductions in employment and, in some cases, leaving Alberta; (d) a loss of $4 billion by AIMCo on risky investments made worse by the observation that management underestimated the level of risk; (e) global oil price collapse; (f) the collapse of the tax base, both in terms of oil and gas but also in terms of taxes on employment; and (h) the prospect of 25-30% unemployment in Alberta for some time. On top of which, we also have COVID-19.

Not great. To make matters worse, his strategy of cancelling the Alberta tax on carbon and fighting the federal carbon tax (now imposed on Alberta) in the courts will backfire when the Supreme Court agrees with the general position of other courts and says that the Federal government is within its rights to protect the environment and levy a tax.

To make matters even worse, Kenney has angered doctors and nurses, education workers of all kinds (including many school trustees) and many others in the public sector. He oversaw (and told untruths about) the lay-off of 20,000 teaching assistants and others in education – the largest single layoff in Canadian labour history.

Even worse than worse, he has abused his role as leader of the majority party to abrogate the role of parliament (our legislature) by the passing of Bill 10 – giving him and his Ministerial colleagues the right to enact legislation (and retroactive legislation) without recourse to the house. When Trudeau suggested something similar (but more limited), the Federal conservatives stopped him on the grounds of abuse of process and the rights of parliament. No such voices, other than from the NDP and lawyers, have been heard here.

Kenney has done something right. He has taken the advice of health researchers and scientists in handling the COVID-19 pandemic. Alberta, in comparison to many other jurisdictions, has done well – flattening the demands on the health care system, maintaining the lock-down, testing extensively and looking at fast action to manage outbreaks. Kenney has not done so well in his support for health care workers – we now have a great many rural communities (the UCP electoral base) without GP’s and some rural hospitals have lost their medical staff due to poor policy making with respect to doctor pay and conditions. He also compounded employment opportunities through mass layoffs of public sector workers, short-changing support for business and people and continuing not only to cut higher education budgets, but to claw back money they anticipate “may not be needed”.

The key challenge for Kenney is not the present time – that is a big challenge, but not the most critical. The key challenge is simple: how fast can he pivot to being a leader - the one Alberta needs right now?

A good government at this time would:

  •          Introduce a completely new fiscal framework based on progressive taxation, especially taxing those with most money and using a sales tax to create real sustainable revenue.
  •           Accept deficit and debt as key instruments of sound strategy (especially with very low interest rates). While government should always be efficient and seek to evaluate return on investment and social and economic impact, debts are fine.
  •           Expand public spending, especially on future-focused investments in schools, colleges, universities, training and infrastructure. A particular focus should be on dramatic improvements in literacy and numeracy.
  •           Strengthen health care and attract and retain high quality health care talent and invest especially in prevention and public health.
  •           Work to diversify the economy – invest in future-focused bio-economy, technology, creative industries and design and new manufacturing systems.
  •           Leverage ATB, AIMCo and tax credits to stimulate investments in Alberta companies across all sectors which show potential for growth through sound leadership, business planning and marketing. Support a strong innovation eco-system.
  •           Rekindle and re-energize the fight against poverty, homelessness and unemployment through real support for both for-profit and non-profit social enterprise.
  •            Give support to municipal governments for future-focused investments in safe and compassionate communities.

Ironically, these are almost the exact opposite of the actions taken by Kenney in his first year of government. It is time to be humble, challenge Alberta to be a different place and invest in the a future-focused strategy to rebuild Alberta.

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