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Alberta 'blue-ribbon panel' report sets stage for full-blown austerity

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"Blue-ribbon" panel chair Janice MacKinnon during yesterday's Calgary news conference (Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video).

The recommendations of the Kenney government's "blue-ribbon panel" on Alberta's finances yesterday went further over the top than you'd even have expected from a report ginned up by a couple of Fraser Institute ringers, a former bank president, and a few additional followers of the government's low-tax, market-fundamentalist ideology.

As anticipated, the report called for a full-blown austerity program that includes cuts of "at least" $600 million a year from the province's operating budget, plenty of health-care privatization, an end to limits on tuition fees, and war with the province's public sector unions -- which the United Conservative Party clearly thinks, quite possibly correctly, it has the political capital right now to win.

Answers to reporters' questions by panel chair Janice MacKinnon and Finance Minister Travis Toews at the news conference in Calgary, however, also offer hints we may see post-secondary institutions, high schools and hospitals closed down, and a wage cut for the province's physicians.

Closing hospitals and schools, of course, especially if it's done in the UCP's rural heartland, would bring the pain of austerity right to the party's electoral base. And despite a few tries over the years, no Alberta Conservative party has yet picked a fight with the docs it could win.

Maybe Premier Jason Kenney thinks his government can throw doctors enough privatization bones to win them over, or that the NDP's deal with the Alberta Medical Association last year gave them enough control over the health-care system to be satisfied with a smaller paycheque. But don't count on that.

Even Don Braid, the fervently pro-UCP Calgary Herald political columnist, termed this "a radical document" that could make the upheaval in the 1990s by Ralph Klein's radical restructuring seem mild in comparison when the stuff starts hitting the fan.

It is quite clear, as was said in this space before the report was released, that this is not a legitimate study but a political document intended to justify what the government has already decided to do. But no one can dispute that back in April Alberta voters gave the UCP a mandate to do pretty much whatever they please.

The report stoutly denies the province has a revenue problem -- and MacKinnon, the former Saskatchewan finance minister notorious for closing 52 rural hospitals in that province in the late 1990s, returned to that theme in the news conference, claiming "we don't have a revenue problem, we have a spending problem."

This is ironic, given that the UCP has just blown a $4.5-billion hole in the budget with a massive corporate tax giveaway that is unlikely, if the study of economics is any guide, to live up to its billing as a "job-creating" policy.

In light of her personal history, MacKinnon's reference in the news conference to "fewer hospitals" must have made eyes bug out in some quarters.

The report also calls for the government to use legislation to impose collective agreements containing wage freezes or cuts on public employees, which is sure to be challenged as bargaining in bad faith and a violation of union members' constitutionally protected right to bargain collectively. So in addition to everything else, expect the courts to have to weigh in.

Other recommendations and comments hinted at elimination of post-secondary institutions (Athabasca University, perhaps?), sell-offs of Crown land (without consultations with First Nations?), disposal of "surplus assets" (ATB Financial?), and "tackling all the issues facing business, not just taxes" (right-to-work laws?). At this point, though, it's hard to know for certain what the government has in mind because the language of the report is heavily cloaked in rhetorical code words familiar to any student of neoliberal governance.

Rest assured, though, the fallout from the program this report introduces won't be pretty, and things may get exciting at times.

As blogger Dave Cournoyer pointed out in his Daveberta.ca blog yesterday, part of the blame for this sorry state of affairs must be assigned to previous governments, including that of New Democrat Rachel Notley, because they "did not fix Alberta's revenue problems when they had the chance."

'It's an ugly story, the Janice MacKinnon story'

MacKinnon, one of the Fraser Institute associates referenced earlier in this post, elicited a bitter social media response yesterday from Brian Topp, a senior political adviser to former Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow during some of the years the "blue-ribbon panel" chair served in that province's NDP cabinet.

"You dream of being an NDP premier in Saskatchewan -- a successor to Tommy Douglas, hoping to occupy his office, to sit behind his desk," wrote Topp, who was also a top aide to Alberta premier Rachel Notley after her election in 2015 and a candidate to lead the federal NDP after the death of Jack Layton.

"You look around the cabinet and caucus table, the people who know you best; it gradually dawns on you that not a single colleague would support you and that most loathe you," he continued. "So you quit; you use your NDP credentials to attack your former party for a decade; and you join the other side -- doubling down on your darkest obsessions, the ones that cost you your political career. It's an ugly story, the Janice MacKinnon story." (Emphasis added.)

Commenting on Topp's post, Dwain Lingenfelter, leader of the Saskatchewan NDP from 2009 to 2011, accused MacKinnon of rewriting that province's history to suit herself and the Alberta UCP. "For the former minister of social services to take the credit for balancing the budget when she wasn't the minister of finance when all the heavy lifting happened is a little rich," he commented.

The entire conversation on Facebook is worth a look.

Like that of panel member Bev Dahlby, a University of Calgary economist, the contents of MacKinnon's "author page" have recently disappeared from the Fraser Institute's website.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca

Image: Screenshot of Government of Alberta video

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