If there is one feeling Alberta’s Budget, introduced by Finance Minister Travis Toews on Feb. 28, 2023, is meant to elicit in Albertans it is nostalgia.
A longing for a past that’s remembered more fondly than it was at the time, perhaps to the point of becoming a myth. If we just re-elect the UCP, it will be like the 16 years since Ralph Klein resigned as Premier hadn’t happened.
In 2006, we were asked to believe that the natural gas boom would never end despite predictions by analysts and think tanks such as the Canada West Foundation.
In 2023, we’re asked to believe that oil prices won’t drop below $73 a barrel—that’s all it will take to change the predicted surplus into a deficit. We’re also asked to believe that passing a law mandating balanced budgets will bind the government into the future without consequences.
In exchange for this belief, we’re given record health care, social service and education spending. Corporate taxes are at 8%. It’s the largest capital spend in more than a decade.
The funny thing is, as I talk to people about the budget, and read it myself, I have trouble identifying what we’re getting for this record spending.
In that sense, it’s 2006 all over again.
We have a similar crisis in health which led to major reforms (and spending) a few years later. We have underfunding in education leading to large class sizes, accompanied by a backlog of new schools. That makes it hard to hire more teachers due to a lack of classrooms. This is compounded by a similar-to-2006 underinvestment in post-secondary education, where the number of graduates has barely grown over the previous decade, making it harder for government to hire needed nurses and doctors, and industry to hire enough computer scientists and engineers.
Budget 2023 is a shield against criticism
Without a central narrative, this budget is not an election budget as often perceived—a list of promised goodies should the government be re-elected. Instead, this budget is a shield against criticism. Any attack on underspending in a particular area can be swatted away with cries of ‘record spending’.
Similarly, attacks for not saving, and not paying down debt can be deflected.
At first glance, this budget looks good.
But the devil is in the details; the vagueness of how the funding will be delivered is a sticky point. They have provided very few details and details are unlikely to emerge before election day. The less people dig into the details, the better off the UCP will be.
As Mayor Gondek opined about the budget, there are pockets of good news, asks unfulfilled—no budget, even a good times budget is unlimited—but crucially, no hits. Any pain comes from growth pressures and inflation, not absolute cuts. The budget expressed optimism about the economy, and the film industry in particular, while the capital plan delivers on upgrades to Deerfoot Trail first promised in the later days of the NDP government.
A few months ago, the Premier has mentioned that she did not “need” Calgary to win the next provincial election and the budget is a perfect reflection of her strategy.
There are few headline investments, mostly more studies, leaving very little for the party’s candidates to work with.
In elections, strategists commonly identify issues that their candidate can lead on as ‘sword’ issues, while issues they must defend against as ‘shield’ issues.
This budget makes me wonder what issues are left for Premier Danielle Smith to yield a sword on.
Will heading back to the well of ‘just transition’ be enough to sustain the Smith UCP’s competitiveness in Calgary until the likely election day, a short of 13 weeks away?
Will the election campaign see the barely mentioned ‘Alberta Fund’ take centre stage for spending promises and presenting the Premier’s vision?
On both, I have my doubts.
- Sarah Biggs has been working on municipal, provincial and federal campaigns since 2004. She has experience in lobbying, policy, and community engagement. Biggs was the campaign manager for 2022 UCP leadership candidate Leela Aheer, and recently worked as a key organizer on Jyoti Gondek’s successful 2021 mayoral bid.