Alberta Blue Ribbon Panel Presents Choices: Which Promises to Keep, and Which to Break?

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It’s hard to say it’s “finally” here, because they had relatively little time to prepare it, but former Saskatchewan NDP Finance Minister Janice MacKinnon has delivered her much expected “Blue Ribbon Panel” report on Alberta’s finances.  It only feels like it is “finally” here because the government’s ministers have responded to most opposition and media questions on topics hither and yon by telling them all to wait for the panel’s report.  The waiting is over.

The report is sober in its assessment, and ambitious – if not entirely bold – in its recommendations.  In its assessment, it makes clear what many have been screaming at government for a decade or more: Alberta has a structural deficit, spends more per-capita on most line items that other provinces, and spends more money doing these things poorly.

The report’s recommendations are gutsy, and go well beyond what the Tories campaigned on doing last spring in many cases.

The Tories campaigned on no cuts to the government healthcare or education budgets.  This was a mistake that the MacKinnon panel tries to remedy.  Both the health and education ministries are sacred cows and politicians are rightfully fearful of touching them in any way that isn’t up.  Even voters suspicious of government waste or overspending rarely know what happens under the hood in any given ministry, but health and education waste just as much as any other.

These two departments alone make up more than 54 per cent of the province’s operating budget.  The Tories may have committed to not touching them, but if they want to come anywhere close to balancing the budget on time without relying on a miraculous recovery in resource revenues, they need to be on the table.

The question is, will they?

When the NDP won in 2015, they didn’t mention so much as a word about a carbon tax; but under the guise of their own blue-ribbon panel, they had ideologically sympathetic experts recommend one on their behalf.  It provided media cover and a way for them to add it to their mandate, post-facto.

In one of his trademark billboard signature photo-ops, Jason Kenney committed that if elected he would “maintain or increase health spending”.  With Alberta Health Services one of the most grossly wasteful departments in the government, it was bad policy, but perhaps good politics.

MacKinnon’s panel now gives him cover to point to if he wishes to renege.  In contrast to the NDP however, the Tories did campaign on balancing the budget within four years and stated that there would be some modest spending reductions to achieve it.  They just didn’t really say, how.

In essence, the Tories were elected on conflicted promises: maintain or increase health spending, and balance the budget by reducing costs.  With the health department alone at more than 39 per cent of the operating budget, and education at 15 per cent, it would require the near obliteration of every other department in the government to achieve balance without touching the two largest.

Republican deficit hawks in the US face a similar problem in grappling with their budget when the military and entitlement benefits are strictly off the table.  The math just doesn’t add up.

The MacKinnon panel isn’t in the business of trying to buy votes.  It was given a simple mandate and told to deliver a diagnosis, and treatment plan.

The plan laid out by MacKinnon isn’t a libertarian dream of a vastly reduced state with people keeping most of their money and government leaving them alone.  It is a course adjustment within the current fiscal confines and the moderate conservative tradition.

In the conflict between conflicting election platform promises, it picks the smarter course: balancing the budget.

No matter how modest any changes are, the NDP are sure to declare it a draconian ideological assault on all that is good in the world (all things good being government).

If the panel’s recommendations are implemented, the NDP will have a legitimate point that it is breaking election promises.  To this, the Tories would be justified in reminding the NDP of their own expert panel churning out a carbon tax with no mandate whatsoever.  The Tories at least have a conflicted mandate.

Either promises to not reduce health and spending budgets will be broken, or the promise to balance the budget in four years will be broken.  With the facts on the table, it’s now up to the politicians to decide.

Photo Credit: Edmonton Journal

More from Derek Fildebrandt.     @Dfildebrandt

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