Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta
The writ has dropped for Alberta’s election campaign. Political parties have largely already made their decisions on what policy directions they will announce for the province in the coming weeks. However, it is up to Albertans between now and election day what issues are the most important in the campaign, and the fate of political parties at the ballot box will ultimately be determined by the promises they make on the issues that voters decide are the highest priority. If the goal is to move Alberta forward, not backward, then public services need to be at the heart of the campaign.
For the past year or more, issues related to the province’s economy have been the highest priority for both of the major political parties and have therefore dominated media coverage and the overall public conversation. However, things are shifting as voting day gets closer. Voters are becoming more concerned about public services, including health care and education, and political parties are responding.
While public services received relatively little attention from the media and political parties over the past year, the NDP has recently moved health care, education, and child care up its priority list in what they speak about publicly. This has been done, in large part, with the election looming and a realization that contrast with Jason Kenney’s United Conservative Party (UCP) is necessary. This need was particularly apparent after a year full of headlines dominated by getting pipelines built to expand the province’s capacity to export fossil fuels, an issue on which the two major parties agree on in almost every way.
Turning their attention back to public services makes sense for the NDP. Looking back to the choices in the previous election, the now-defunct Progressive Conservatives pledged massive cuts to both health care and education as a way to reduce the deficit in the provincial budget. At the same time, they pledged to raise several taxes, but notably refused to raise the tax rate for large corporations, even though in their consultations with Albertans, raising the corporate tax was the most popular option.
In 2015, the NDP made reversing those planned cuts to public services a key plank in their election platform and won. While that was better than the alternative of massive cuts, the promise really was to protect the status quo in health care and education instead of making it worse. That is exactly what happened over these past four years, with only some small exceptions.
Unacceptable classroom conditions in our schools remained the same, with large class sizes and not enough supports for children with complex needs. Our health care system continued to suffer from a lack of investment in a wide variety of areas, including seniors’ care beds, home care, and pharmaceutical coverage. In child care, there was a significant change, with the establishment of thousands of affordable, high-quality spaces for children funded through the Early Learning and Child Care (ELCC) Centres program. While that has proven overwhelmingly successful, unfortunately the scale of it is still quite small, and it remains a pilot project.
The current election needs to be about these issues. The fundamental problems in education, health care, and child care need to be at the heart of the campaign for all political parties. The UCP has already said they would freeze funding in our major areas of public services. At a time when the province is still growing and inflation is rising, freezing spending means cuts to the services available to each of us. That is the wrong direction for our province. But moving in a positive direction this time needs to be more than protecting the status quo.
Every political party needs to explain to Albertans how they will fix the conditions in our classrooms, invest in seniors’ care in a way that doesn’t focus on corporate profits but rather the quality of care our seniors deserve, take the pressure off our emergency rooms, and turn Alberta’s patchwork child care market into a universal system.
While there are many important issues for political parties to consider, the reality with our public services it that our provincial government has the full power to determine whether they get worse or get better. Voters need to make known to candidates and their parties that Alberta should be moving forward, not back, and that means making our public services the top priority in the election.