The 2019 provincial election in Alberta will be an exercise in fear management. Both leading parties, Rachel Notley’s NDP and Jason Kenney’s UCP, have taken steps — and sometimes gigantic leaps — to immunize themselves from being painted as irresponsible economic extremists.
There are indeed stark differences between the economic plans of the NDP and the UCP, but both parties have moved to the middle in order to calm voters.
Of course, the NDP will shout out that the UCP is plotting to turn Alberta into a divided province of haves and have-nots. As the NDP’s throne speech warned: “For too long, governments in Alberta worked for political insiders, well-heeled special interests and the super rich … We cannot — we must not — allow two different Albertas to form: One for the wealthy and one for everyone else.”
The UCP will holler back about the NDP’s increased taxes, adoration of regulation and anti-pipeline history, which they say has led to a surge of unemployment and rising government debt. As Kenney has put it: “Our province is being damaged every day by an ideological government that takes its inspiration from the failed theories of socialism, by a resentment of success, a distrust of enterprise.”
But, in fact, both parties agree more than they disagree on a number of key economic issues, including areas of pronounced past disagreement, such as the necessity of supporting new pipeline construction, the government’s crucial role in economic diversification, and that the public sector should not be hit with massive cuts.
On the minimum wage issue, Kenney isn’t planning to slash the NDP’s increases, but keep the minimum wage at $15 per hour, save for cutting the youth minimum wage to $13 per hour (which provides a necessary incentive for employers to hire inexperienced workers).
The NDP were notoriously against the Northern Gateway pipeline project and wishy-washy on Keystone XL, but now the NDP take full credit for the Trudeau Liberals buying up Trans Mountain when the expansion project was about to fail due to activist obstructionism and judicial road blocks. Proclaimed the NDP throne speech: “Trans Mountain remains in play because we compelled the federal government to step up and buy it.”
The NDP has also moved to bolster the energy sector with a diversification plan, $3.5 billion on the table to encourage billions more in private sector investment in petrochemicals.
The old Klein conservatives famously preached they weren’t in the business of doing business, but Kenney offers at least conceptual support for the NDP’s plan, so long as the government is investing in viable businesses with a high percentage of private capital.
When I recently asked Kenney about this issue, his words echoed many NDP statements. “We’re not opposed to the royalty tax credit incentive for petrochemical development per se. We want to look at each decision on its own merits. We agree that there is tremendous potential for more value added, leveraging our super cheap natural gas feed stock. When it comes to attracting investments like this, we are competing with other jurisdictions that do offer tax incentives, U.S. gulf states that will offer packages like no property tax, no corporate tax, et cetera for a certain number of years.”
Even on the issue of government debt, Kenney takes a more moderate approach than previous right-wing Alberta governments.
The UCP fiscal program will avoid large cuts, Kenney said, with plans to hold spending at current levels and control it partly through staff attrition. “There’s a certain anxiety about what happened back in 1993. We do not have to do that if we grow the economy and have a period of sustained fiscal responsibility.”
Of course, there are also major differences. The UCP promises to axe the NDP’s carbon tax. The UCP also promises to chop corporate taxes to eight per cent from 12 per cent, predicting this will supercharge the economy.
As for the NDP’s job growth plan, in the throne speech they focused on the “government’s efforts” to create jobs, talking up provincial spending on education, schools, hospitals, medical labs, public infrastructure, and seniors and social housing, before finally mentioning the NDP’s work on lobbying for the Trans Mountain expansion and investing in petrochemicals.
Of course, no loyalist conservative is going to suddenly believe Notley is doing enough on the pipeline file. No longtime socialist is going to buy for a moment that Kenney will be anything but anti-labour and anti-public sector spending.
But folks in the middle will notice moderation here, an attempt to answer for mistakes and excesses of the past. Wherever we’re headed, it’s to neither extreme edge of the economic spectrum.