Jason Kenney’s pitch to Alberta’s teachers, health-care workers and civil servants? There’s nothing worse for the public service than reckless deficit spending and a mountain of government debt.
“This is my plea to people in the public sector: debt is not your friend, it’s your enemy,” Kenney said. “Debt gnaws away at public services. The first person a government has to pay every year is the bankers. It’s not negotiable. And it goes from being a little invisible marginal cost, but with the magic of compound interest and exposure to future rate hikes, it becomes a big cost driver in government. It cannibalizes the things we want most, health and education.”
This theme of avoiding harm through prudent government policy came up repeatedly in my lengthy interview on Monday with Kenney on the United Conservative Party’s economic platform.
Kenney’s opponents characterize him as a rigid social conservative, out to only help the rich, but the socio-economic gospel according to Kenney is a belief that individuals and families can best care for themselves and for others if government respects their choices and allows them the freedom to go about their business with little interference.
He frames Alberta’s current economic woes — huge annual government deficits, major increases in bankruptcies and insolvencies, poor employment numbers including record unemployment for young men, and weak forecasts for economic growth — in terms of the harm inflicted. “It is devastating many people’s lives,” he said. “The opioid crises, addiction, increases in family violence, even increases in suicide, I think a lot of these things are traceable to this sustained downturn.”
His plan? To create an engine for new jobs by keeping government spending as is, cutting red tape and chopping corporate taxes.
“We want to take Alberta from the most over-regulated to the freest economy,” he said.
And, “The best way to balance the budget without reducing spending is to grow the economy, and the most effective way to grow the economy is to restore our business tax advantage.”
The iron spine in Kenney comes out when he talks of NDP Leader Rachel Notley’s formerly warm alliance with Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It saw Notley go along with the federal carbon tax and raise not a word of protest when Trudeau put forward a tanker ban on the B.C. northwest coast in 2016. In return, Trudeau backed the Trans Mountain pipeline expansion.
When it came time to protest Bill C-69, the proposed federal industrial assessment process, Notley only raised concerns through quiet diplomacy, not full-throated opposition as Kenney would have done. Only now is Notley speaking out loudly on the tanker ban and the assessment plan, a fatally flawed process that will kill future pipeline projects.
As Kenney puts it: “Whatever they have done on these issues has been at the 11th hour as political theatre, realizing that their alliance with Mr. Trudeau was a huge mistake.”
The dynamic must change, Kenney said, with the Alberta government going hard after opponents. For example, he says, an author of C-69 is federal environment minister’s chief of staff Marlo Raynolds, former executive director of the Pembina Institute, which took millions from U.S. foundations dedicated to landlocking the Alberta oilsands, Kenney said. “They engaged in what I call economic sabotage against Alberta.”
The same U.S.-funded campaign financed First Nations that took Trans Mountain to court, Kenney said, as well as U.S. court and political challenges that have delayed the Keystone XL and Line 3 pipelines.
Activist Vivian Krause, who exposed the U.S. campaign to landlock Alberta oil, is harshly criticizing the Notley government’s inaction on this funding, but Kenney promises movement. “Instead of being reactive, passive and apologetic — ‘We’re the embarrassing cousins of Confederation,’ says the premier — we need to be assertive and strategic.”
If a British bank like HSBC refuses to finance the oilsands, the Alberta government will cut business with it, Kenney said. The government will go after the Suzuki Foundation’s charitable status in court. It will bankroll a defamation case against Greenpeace in U.S. courts.
“We will tell B.C. if you block our oil, we will stop sending it to you, we’ll slow down the Lower Mainland economy. We’ll tell Ottawa, ‘No pipelines, no equalization.’ I know to some people this sounds like rhetoric, but I absolutely mean it and Albertans expect it.”
Indeed we do, which is why the NDP has moved hard to the centre while in office. But Kenney proposes a far more determined shift to building and defending our economy. His approach resonates with me, especially given Alberta’s poor results and weak prospects.