UCP leadership race

A closer look at Jason Kenney's ‘guarantee’ to Albertans

Former Harper minister vows to undo policies of Rachel Notley’s NDP government
Photo: Andrew Scheer

At the beginning of the leadership race for Alberta’s United Conservative Party, Jason Kenney issued a “Grassroots Guarantee” that he would not impose policy directions on the new party. Instead, he laid out a plan for how the members of the party would develop a policy agenda.

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Kenney did not even finish his press conference that day before telling the media where he stands on some very specific areas of policy. In fact, his website has a “Where I Stand” section with a list of policy priorities, and he has talked about many of them in more detail in media interviews.

Here I’ll look at many of the same issues I wrote about when looking at former Wildrose leader Brian Jean’s economic platform.

Kenney’s agenda is best summed up in the text of a social media post he made in February:

“There is no obstacle in the NDP’s legacy that we will not be able to undo. I would have the longest ever sitting of the summer session of the Alberta Legislature in 2019. I call it the ‘Summer of Repeal,’ we’ll turn off the air conditioners in the Legislature to focus the mind. We’ll start with Bill 1, the Carbon Tax Repeal Act, followed by a succession of repeals of the NDP regulatory and legislative agenda.

Kenney, platform or no platform, has taken clear positions on issues such as funding for public services, workers’ rights, climate change, education curricula, private schools, and LGBTQ rights.

Cutting public services to balance the budget

Kenney, like Jean, says he would eliminate the $10 billion annual deficit and balance the budget within three years. He characterizes Alberta’s current level of spending on public services as “waste” and says spending on bureaucracy and administration is excessive.

It is a popular conservative line used to justify big budget cuts, even when it has little basis in reality. Albertans already have decades of experience of conservative premiers finding “efficiencies” to cut spending on public services, which have resulted in ballooning class sizes in schools, long wait times to get into seniors’ care, and minimal supports for the most vulnerable individuals and families.

One of Kenney’s few concrete proposals that would affect spending is expanding the role of private corporations in health care to create more competition — though that sort of competition is what leads the United States to spend far more per capita than Canada on administration of health care.

His spending target is a massive 20 per cent, or $11 billion, below current levels. So, what would Kenney actually cut to achieve this staggering reduction? It is a question he has left unanswered. Particularly if he wins the UCP’s leadership race, he owes Albertans a detailed explanation of what he would cut and of what effects those cuts would have on Alberta’s health care system, education system, and other public services. I’ll come back to this question.

Weakening workers’ rights and climate change mitigation

Like Jean, Kenney pledges to abolish basic workplace protections the NDP government extended to farm workers. He strongly opposed changes to Alberta’s labour standards that brought the province roughly in line with the rest of the country.

The UCP leadership candidates are united in the view that preventing catastrophic climate change is not a priority and that Alberta’s carbon tax, along with the wide variety of green programs the revenue pays for, should be scrapped. Kenney’s environment webpage says he is “hugely proud” of Big Oil corporations for their carbon capture and storage projects. This was the preferred emissions remedy of Alberta’s previous Progressive Conservative government, though it is a more expensive solution than wind or solar power and so questionable in its usefulness that the PC premier at the time, Jim Prentice, called it a “science experiment.”

Kenney doesn’t actually say carbon capture and storage should receive more public funding. His single proposal that sounds anything like action to reduce emissions is investing in so-called “clean coal”, the unicorn of climate change solutions.

Playing politics with education

Kenney has politicized the Alberta government’s major curriculum review by accusing the government of trying to infuse its ideology in the education system. The accusation has so little credibility that the Edmonton Journal’s editorial board wrote that Kenney and his fellow UCP leadership candidates should “stop using the educational system as a political whipping boy.”. He has also, despite widespread criticism, stuck to a position that LGBTQ students who join a gay-straight alliance in their school should be outed to their parents without their permission. He is also staunchly defending the generous public subsidies the government provides to private schools, which is arguably Alberta’s most blatant waste of public money.

Reducing tax revenue

Kenney doesn’t get as specific as Jean in the tax cuts he is proposing. Aside from the carbon tax, he wants to get “our other tax rates back down as quickly as we can,” which presumably means bringing back the tax rates prior to the NDP’s 2015 election win. That would reduce Alberta’s annual tax revenue by about $2 billion.

Alberta’s tax system is by far the worst in the country at raising annual revenue to pay for public services

Kenney frames his promise to balance the budget within three years as a 20 per cent reduction in spending to bring Alberta in line with B.C. What he doesn’t mention is that average weekly earnings in Alberta are actually more than 20 per cent higher than in B.C. Employers in both the public and private sectors pay more in Alberta to retain qualified staff, which has a major effect on spending levels.

Another piece of information conveniently left out of Kenney’s speaking notes is that B.C.’s tax system would raise 20 per cent more annual tax revenue amounting to $8.7 billion annually. Alberta’s tax system is by far the worst in the country at raising annual revenue to pay for public services, a problem I have called the Revenue Disadvantage.

We should indeed balance Alberta’s budget in the coming years, because it is absolutely essential to pay for preserving and improving our public services — but through fair and progressive taxation in the way that other provinces do, rather than relying on volatile revenue from non-renewable resources.

It should be done by fixing our deficient tax system, not by gutting our health care system, education system, and supports for vulnerable individuals and families.

The solution to the Revenue Disadvantage is introducing a sales tax mitigated for low-income earners and increasing personal income tax revenue from middle- and upper-income earners.

Of course, you won’t find those solutions in Kenney’s platform. But then, he doesn’t really have a platform, does he?

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