Finance Minister Travis Toews got up on his hind legs in the Alberta legislature Tuesday and promised to spend more on health care and education, set up a billion-dollar special projects fund, pay down debt, and still leave the province with a $2.4-billion dollar surplus.
Bolstered by record royalty revenues, Toews’ budget calls for the province to spend $68.3 billion in the 2023-24 fiscal year while collecting $76 billion in revenue.
Naturally, this generated many a cheer from the government benches.
But when is a budget not a budget?
When it’s a pre-election budget, of course.
There’s always a certain performative quality to provincial budgets. We live in a democracy, after all, and sooner or later all governments must try to get re-elected.
But when the budget’s ahead of a provincial election, 90 days in the case of the Alberta budget speech read by Toews Tuesday, they come with a palpable air of unreality.
The legislature is soon to be prorogued. Whichever party forms government after the election will have to introduce a new budget and a new legislative program.
In other words, this budget speech is a chimerical document, made up of smoke, mirrors and legerdemain.
It is nothing more than promises, which keen observers of provincial politics, whether they are supporters of the governing United Conservative Party or the Opposition New Democratic Party, do not necessarily expect to be kept.
So if you’re planning to vote based on Toews’ promise to boost health and education budgets — although by less than the rate of inflation — be prepared to be disappointed after the May 29 election.
Toews also didn’t mention a number of Premier Danielle Smith’s most controversial ideas — including pulling Alberta out of the Canada Pension Plan, dumping the RCMP for an easier-to-control provincial force and the now-notorious RStar well-cleanup scam. But that also doesn’t mean they’re no longer on the agenda.
Toews used his speech to directly assail the NDP, although not by name — something decades of Progressive Conservative governments in Alberta would not have contemplated doing, but also never would have felt the need.
“In three months, Albertans will have a decision to make regarding the next government,” he said. “As a province, we have the benefit of contrasting two very different approaches to governance and the economy; not theoretical or hypothetical conjecture, but the actual results of two contrasting economic strategies.”
“The Opposition’s economic management model of raising taxes, increasing regulatory burden, high operational spending, and working to expedite the energy transition in conjunction with the federal government was nothing short of disastrous,” he continued, a bit unfairly. After all, the NDP governed through the collapse of world oil prices and the Smith government lucked into another boom, which always seems to make balancing a budget a little easier.
But, hey, that’s politics.
The Opposition, which doesn’t get a chance for a riposte on budget day, shot back in a news release.
The budget, it said, “includes fake projections, hidden plans, rising costs, and continued underfunding of what matters most to Albertans.”
“Forecasts for GDP growth and employment growth that are much higher than any private sector forecast, with some more than double. Funding for critical services remains below where it should be if adjusted for population growth and inflation, with health-care funding short $1.4 billion and education funding short $1.6 billion.”
The government's plan is a “fraudulent budget designed to buy votes ahead of the election and then spring the costs on Albertans after the polls have closed,” Opposition Leader and former premier Rachel Notley charged, noting that many of the UCP’s affordability programs will end right after the spring election, including electricity rebates and fuel tax relief.
This sense of unreality may explain why the aspect of the budget speech story that seemed to generate the most interest Tuesday afternoon was the appearance of convoy activist Tamara Lich at the legislature’s public gallery.
Lich, who is facing seven criminal charges for her role in the Ottawa truck protest, was introduced at the start of the afternoon sitting as if she were a hero by Independent MLA Drew Barnes to the cheers of many UCP MLAs.
Barnes, who was booted out of the UCP caucus by former premier Jason Kenney in May 2021 and seems to have made no effort to return to the mother ship after the election of Smith by UCP members last year, did the premier no favours with this stunt.
“Drew Barnes has now made sure that Premier Smith will face questions about whether she supports Tamara Lich,” noted noted Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt. “A major distraction from a good news budget.”
However, that is presumably exactly what was intended by Barnes, who is clearly playing his own game.
At least he didn’t give his former UCP colleagues the chance to cheer a convicted murderer, as happened recently in the Saskatchewan legislature.
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