Opinion: Blue ribbon panel gives political cover to public

With much fanfare, Alberta’s UCP government has appointed the Blue Ribbon Panel on Alberta’s finances to recommend a path to balance its budget. Unfortunately, the entire project is compromised from the outset because the panel’s mandate ties one of its hands behind its back.

Budgets have two components: revenue and expenses. However, the panel’s mandate specifically excludes any consideration of changes necessary to the way our government generates revenue – which means that its job is restricted to recommending cuts to Alberta’s public services.

This misguided mandate can only be seen as providing cover for Premier Jason Kenney to break his election promise of getting more funding to the front lines of both our health-care and public-education system.

The panel is designed to provide a rigged rationale for making big cuts to public services, by not even considering the better alternative of paying for our public services through the kinds and levels of taxation that all other provinces use for that purpose.

Residents of Calgary are already getting a taste of what is coming provincially at the municipal level. Calgary city council approved a massive tax cut for corporations but delayed discussion of the public services it would cut to pay for it until weeks later, when it was revealed that the cuts would include public transit, affordable housing, Indigenous relations, fire and emergency response, and police services.

Citizens and civil society groups mobilized through a grassroots campaign called Keep Calgary Strong, and they even had success reversing some of them, including a planned cut to accessible transit. However, much damage was still done.

The Kenney government’s plans look glaringly similar. They have already adopted a massive tax cut for Alberta’s largest and wealthiest corporations, making our government’s significant shortage of tax revenue even worse. Our tax system was already by far the least effective in the country at raising revenue, to the extent that adopting the tax system of any other province would raise between $11.2 and $21.5 billion in additional revenue every year, which would more than cover our current deficit of $6.7 billion and allow for much-needed quality improvements to health care, education and other services.

Even before its first budget, the cuts have begun. Without any detailed commitment of sustainable funding from the province, some school boards are being forced to cut teaching positions and prepare for even larger class sizes. Funding for persons with developmental disabilities (PDD) has been frozen, leading to cuts in programs like a camp for autistic youth and delay or denial of other supports that are normally funded on an annual basis.

The urgent need for a new diagnostic laboratory was identified by Alberta’s previous conservative government, which set the wheels in motion for the new facility to be located at the University of Alberta Hospital. The Kenney government immediately cancelled the initiative despite the fact that construction was underway. As a result, medically necessary tests will face longer delays, and our health-care system will be stuck with outdated technology.

The inescapable truth is that this panel is nothing but a political gimmick to give the UCP government a pretext to make deeply unpopular, ideological cuts to the public services we all need and value.

Obviously, more services will be turned over to the whims of private corporations. Other services and programs will disappear from public budgets altogether, but we all know the real costs never disappear. Instead they are shifted to the pocketbooks of Alberta families and paid for individually rather than collectively through our tax system.

How our government decides to handle its budget situation is a choice. They can fix our deficient revenue system so we can properly fund our services, or they can make deep cuts. The mandate of the panel makes it abundantly clear that the UCP government has already decided on the latter and simply appointed the panel to tell it what it wants to hear.

Albertans should reject this panel’s biased mandate, hold Premier Kenney to his word that more funding – not less – will be allocated to the front lines of our public services, and demand a process that fairly considers the alternative of revenue reform to properly support and enhance our public services.

Joel French, Executive Director of Public Interest Alberta
(As printed in the Edmonton Journal)