Terry Price, President of Public Interest Alberta, Chair of Seniors' Task Force
Alberta’s UCP government has been in office for eight months, and their goals and strategies are now crystal clear. The enormous number and far-reaching extent of their actions across so many areas of government policies and programs tells us that this is a full-frontal attack on virtually every value progressive thinkers hold dear.
For individuals and organizations committed to the importance of strong public services, equity, human rights, and democracy, the stark picture that emerges is deeply disturbing and profoundly threatening, both in terms of the kinds of changes that have occurred and the type of society towards which we are heading.
There have been so many negative changes in such a short period of time that it is easy to feel overwhelmed, but when we step back and examine the larger picture, some major insights emerge:
1. This is in no way “just another conservative government:” The UCP in power are clearly an extremist group, actively bent on transforming Alberta into a society that is very different from what we have known, one based on a radical and comprehensive right-wing agenda.
The breadth and depth of the UCP attacks on public services and democracy are without precedent in Alberta’s history, and range across all areas of public services. Former Premier Klein imposed dramatic cuts, but they were not in the context of the ideological transformation that Premier Kenney clearly is attempting to put in place. Public health care, public education, post-secondary education, seniors’ care, child care and early learning, workers’ rights, poverty reduction programs, assistance for those with disabilities, regulations to protect the public interest – all are under systematic attack, while at the same time, wealthy and corporate interests are protected, supported and enabled; and democracy is undermined.
2. The overall UCP goal is not simply to balance the provincial budget; rather, it reflects a calculated attempt to undermine public services in order to open up opportunities for privatization, particularly in health care and education.
Rather than reluctantly making cuts, the UCP government seems to see cutting public services as a long-awaited opportunity to turn over these activities to the private sector, which they continue to suggest will handle everything with more “efficiency” – contrary to all the evidence from the many attempts in recent decades at neo-liberal austerity programs around the world. This failed “trickle-down” approach has been thoroughly discredited and has resulted in rising inequality in more developed countries, but the Kenney government is deeply committed to this misguided approach.
3. The UCP’s election promise to protect front-line services has obviously been completely abandoned, and the cuts to public services over the next four years are clearly going to be far deeper and more damaging than the UCP government have indicated.
It is now abundantly clear that the UCP’s promise to ensure that front-line services in health and education are not cut was nothing more than an election ploy. Their statement that these are merely “modest” cuts (at a level of 2.8 %) are demonstrably untrue. That figure does not take into account the effect of not providing for inflation over four years, which may well result in effective cuts of between 15 and 20 per cent. At the end of the year, the government abandoned all pretext, and advised the public sector unions and associations in bargaining to expect much deeper cuts. And of course, layoffs in public services mean an increase in unemployment, with the multiplier effect that comes from a decline in spending by those who no longer have jobs. And all of this is somehow to contribute to economic growth?
4. The UCP agenda is not limited to financial and economic matters, but involves the systematic undermining of important elements of democracy, human rights, equity and compassion.
Kenney’s use of omnibus bills and closure of debate to achieve these ends is profoundly undemocratic, and his firing of the Elections Commissioner reflects a contempt for democratic principles. His use of a $30 million ‘War Room’ and a commission to investigate environmental groups are clear attacks on freedom of speech as well as an attempt to bully and intimidate those who hold opposing views. He has chosen to interpret his election victory as a mandate to do whatever he wishes, which is a distortion of democratic principles, and one which raises deep concerns about minority and human rights in the future. The UCP government’s utter lack of compassion for those who need our help most makes Alberta a more mean-spirited place, bringing out the worst in us rather than the best.
5. These policies will have their most severe effect on those who are most vulnerable and least well-off, and will benefit wealthy and corporate interests who are already most advantaged.
The UCP seems to have attacked everyone but the wealthy and powerful, who will be the beneficiaries of a $4.7 billion corporate tax cut. This enormous loss of government revenue will of course make it more difficult to fund public services, and will serve as a rationale to make even deeper cuts. Kenney’s regressive policies on minimum wage, the de-indexing of AISH benefits and cuts to a wide range of services will have troubling effects on people living in poverty, seniors, those with disabilities and those who already need our help most.
6. The UCP’s ideological fixation on this misguided attempt at transformation has the further consequence of ignoring the need to deal with our crucial concerns in areas such as climate change, growing inequality, economic diversification, employment and artificial intelligence, and strengthening public services, infrastructure and transportation.
It is now absolutely clear that dealing with climate change must be a top priority for all governments, but Alberta’s UCP government is not only ignoring that imperative, it is pursuing policies that will make this climate crisis even worse. Their absolute and single-minded determination to promote an expansion of the fossil fuel industry at all costs means that our province will be ignoring the enormous opportunities in developing green alternatives, and we will be increasingly left behind in a world that is collectively moving to a green energy and low carbon future. At the same time, this regressive approach will continue to limit our chances for economic diversification into other promising areas, while growing inequality will be made worse by major job losses in public services, and our increasing infrastructure needs will go unmet.
7. The UCP has overstated the nature and extent of Alberta’s budget problems, and has ignored a far better and more equitable solution – increasing revenues through fair taxation, which would allow us to eliminate the deficit and strengthen rather than cut the public services that Albertans need and deserve.
The UCP government has willfully and wrongly characterized Alberta’s budget difficulties as “a spending problem,” when the evidence overwhelmingly indicates that this is simply untrue. Rather, it is caused by inadequate revenues due to its tax structure. Unlike all other provinces, Alberta has stubbornly refused to introduce a provincial sales tax, and relied instead on revenue from non-renewable resources. Now that those resource revenues are no longer available, the solution is obvious. If Alberta put in place the taxation levels of the next-lowest province, it would generate at least eleven billion dollars in additional revenues, and still leave Alberta with the lowest taxation levels in the country. Even using a sales tax set at the lowest level in the country would eliminate Alberta’s deficit. We need to do what the other provinces do – put in place fair and equitable taxation, which will provide consistent revenue to support and strengthen our much-needed public services.
And we absolutely need to abandon this ideological, privatizing, mean-spirited and misguided path that the UCP government has chosen.
What we must do about it
Part of the strategy for implementing the UCP agenda has been to move very quickly on a wide range of fronts, and they have done so in a dramatic fashion. Mr. Kenney’s “Summer of Repeal” has been followed by a fall season with an even broader series of actions including: threatening unions with rollbacks and deep cuts, unilaterally hijacking pension plans, firing the Election Commissioner who was investigating the UCP leadership campaign, removing most of the rights of farm workers, suggesting a possible provincial takeover of the Canada Pension Plan and provincial policing, and much more.
The scope and depth of these attacks on public services, rights and democracy have given the government an initial advantage and momentum, but at the same time the wide range of these attacks has affected huge numbers of individuals and groups, and the fightback is now clearly underway and momentum is growing.
Public Interest Alberta has been playing an active role in this resistance work, and we have been very encouraged by the growing determination of so many unions, associations, civil society organizations and committed individuals as we confront and defeat these dangerous directions.
Based on a clear understanding of the current situation and what the UCP is doing, as well as our previous experiences as progressive individuals and organizations in fighting these kinds of threats, the following points seem important to consider:
- This is going to be a long fight.The UCP has a strong majority of seats, and they believe that they have a mandate to do whatever they want. We need to prepare for a four-year struggle, with short, medium and long-term actions.
- It will be important to focus on the harmful effects of UCP policies on all individuals and families across the province rather than just the people who have lost their jobs, and to focus on the important role that public services play in meeting the needs of Albertans in fair, effective, and equitable ways.
- In confronting this agenda, cooperation and coordination among organizations will be essential, and facilitating that cooperation will require ongoing communication, commitment and resources.
- It will be necessary to educate members of the public on these negative impacts over an extended period of time, through a variety of means, and this will require a commitment of resources and efforts.
- It is essential to focus on the “hidden agenda” of the cuts,which is to undermine and create dissatisfaction with public services, creating opportunities for privatization, particularly in the potentially lucrative areas of health care and education. This will move Alberta in the direction of parts of the United States, where this right-wing ideology has flourished and been exported through the support of wealthy donors.
- It will be important to constantly raise the question, “who benefits from these policies?”and to point out how corporate and wealthy groups are benefiting extensively, while the costs are borne by ordinary Albertans and, in particular, by the poor and disadvantaged.
- Our collective success will be realized by concentrating on educating and engaging the public to put pressure on the government to make changes, not by trying to convince the government to change their policies.
- We need to recognize that, despite the government’s initial strengths, they will have growing vulnerabilities based on the increasing numbers of people negatively affected by the loss or reduction of important services.
- The current situation with respect to information technology and communications offers an enormous range of possibilities for political action and engagement; at the same time, face-to-face engagement and public events and actions have an important role to play, and comprehensive, multi-faceted approaches will contribute to success.
- It will be important to articulate and communicate a clear alternative to the government’s agenda, one based on the importance to Albertans of the value of strong public services, democracy, equity and human rights.
- We will also have to demonstrate that there is a far better path than the wrong road chosen by the UCP – that the alternative of paying for strengthened public services through fair and equitable taxation (including a sales tax, which all other provinces use) will be a far better approach, one that will solve the deficit concern, avoid the dismantling of our public services, and enhance public services to better meet the need of the overwhelming majority of Albertans.
Obviously, many Albertans have begun to fight back against this malignant agenda, and Public Interest Alberta is determined to play a supportive role in resisting these misguided policies and promoting better alternatives. It’s going to be a long struggle, and we need to be prepared to organize and work hard together over the next four years.
We at Public Interest Alberta are committed to working with progressive individuals and organizations in fighting back in strong, sustained and effective ways. I look forward to hearing from you and working together with you in the very near future.