On July 22 members of the Progressive Conservative and Wildrose parties voted almost unanimously to create the United Conservative Party of Alberta in hopes of replacing Rachel Notley’s NDP government and beginning the long process of restoring the Alberta Advantage. But while the 95% support for unity is very impressive given a decade of bitter divisions in the provincial conservative “family”, the unity vote was one of the easiest decisions Albertans will face in the next generation. Policy not politics is where the real challenges, and opportunities, now lie.
The Alberta Advantage depends upon returning a free enterprise supporting government that can provide services to citizens at a cost equal to or less than our neighbours. But the fact, and looming problem, is that successive Alberta governments including the Progressive Conservatives have created programs that cost approximately 25% more per capita than the Canadian average ($12,400 per person versus $10,000 nation-wide). That means just reducing Alberta’s spending to the Canadian average would require a swift approximately 20% reduction in spending.
Without spending cuts or dramatic increases in revenue, Alberta may well be $70 billion in debt by the time the 2019 election comes around. And that much debt means interest payments of $3 or $4 billion a year on top of built-in operating and capital spending deficits in the neighborhood of $15 billion annually. It’s no use kidding ourselves. We’re in a very deep hole that threatens to keep getting bigger; as we learned painfully in the 1980s, once interest costs start to snowball trouble turns to crisis with dramatic suddenness.
UCP leadership contenders Jason Kenney and Brian Jean, and others, will be crisscrossing our province in the coming months trying to convince us they know best how to bring back the Alberta Advantage. And ultimately it will be up to Albertans to decide Alberta’s future. But as we listen to the candidates and debate their plans we need to be sensible because just restoring Alberta’s budget to balance, let alone bringing spending per person down to reasonable levels, is going to be every bit as challenging as recovering oil from sand in Fort Mac or getting gas out of rock formations.
Some people may hope a rebound in energy prices will let us balance the budget, spend lavishly and cut taxes. But the ‘Alberta Advantage’ was far less about our rich resources than about limited government, respect for entrepreneurship and personal rather than fossil fuel energy, the ingenuity and ‘guts’ of our citizens. And we won’t get there by fiddling at the margins.
We will not get the Alberta Advantage back by painlessly trimming “fat” in government spending, having a referendum on photo radar or allowing free parking at our hospitals even if these are good ideas. Indeed, we won’t get it back without a frank in-depth discussion of the huge challenges facing our province. As MLA Derek Fildebrandt has said: “We need to have a grown-up conversation about what needs to be done with Alberta’s spending problem.” Starting with the recognition that at bottom it is a spending problem.
A 20% reduction in spending will be very painful for everyone, especially since we have all become accustomed over generations to getting more from government than they can afford to give us. So, Albertans need a soul searching, honest discussion about how we protect essential frontline services, including in some cases major restructuring, while reducing spending to “live within our means”. If it were easy it would have been done by now. And we can’t expect our political leaders to make these tough decisions for us. Paradoxically, citizens must lead and politicians will follow.
So yes, the unity vote was a great first step. But now we need to take a deep breath, look up from the details especially of political operations, and ask ourselves if we want to leave our province and our grandkids and future generations mired in debt or if we want to make the difficult choices and endure the difficult cuts that must be made to get our spending under control.
Clever slogans won’t get the Alberta Advantage back. And while Alberta’s conservative family has put province before party to give Alberta’s voters two clear choices in the 2019 election, the choices must involve policy as well as partisan stripe. If Albertans want the new conservative party to make the difficult choices necessary to bring back the Alberta Advantage, they need to get involved in selecting the leader and setting the policy for our new conservative party.
Conservatives have given Albertans a choice and an opportunity. Do we Pay the Piper or Pass the Buck? Our choice on that question will determine the province’s future.
Economic Education Association of Alberta