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Where's the financial crisis in Alberta that austerity is supposed to fix?

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Calgary's Eighth Avenue Mall, emblematic of an Alberta in which the population keeps growing as the number of civil servants per capita falls. Image: David J. Climenhaga

In the decade between 2008 and last year, the number of civil servants in Alberta on a per capita basis fell by five per cent.

In the same period, Alberta's population grew by almost 20 per cent.

I know, I know, that isn't what you heard. You certainly didn't read it in a government press release!

That's hardly surprising, since it isn't at all the impression the United Conservative Party government of Premier Jason Kenney wants you to get while it works hard with the help its "blue ribbon panel," which includes a couple of Fraser Institute elves, to gin up a fiscal crisis that only bigly austerity can fix.

But we know these key factoids about the relative shrinkage of the civil service and the growth in the population from the statistics compiled by KPMG LLP for the MacKinnon report -- named for Janice MacKinnon, the Fraser Institute associate and former Saskatchewan finance minister who chaired the committee charged with coming up with excuses for ways to find the $4.5 billion the government requires just to cut its billionaire friends' taxes.

The population growth calculation is on page 16 of the 151-page number-crunching effort for the panel. The estimate of civil service shrinkage is on page 22.

"On a per capita basis … Alberta's core government employment decreased by 5 per cent over the past 10 years or 0.5 per cent (compounded annually)," the KPMG analysis says. "All other comparator provinces showed increases in their core government employment over the same period."

So why is reducing civil service jobs and compensation part of the government's plan for fixing Alberta's supposed "spending problem" again? You tell me.

The UCP never misses an opportunity to blame the NDP government of former premier Rachel Notley for the fiscal state of the province, but it never mentions that while on a per capita basis Alberta's civil service compensation increased by 27 per cent over the 10-year period, it stopped growing in 2015, the year the NDP was elected.

That's another little factoid you won't read in a government press release because, if you did, you'd have to blame Conservatives. If you're looking, though, it's on page 23.

And on page 24, KPMG illustrates with a nice bright green line how, while overall expenses on compensation by the government of Alberta and most of its related entities has naturally increased as Alberta's population grew, per capita spending in the same area has been falling since the NDP came to power.

And the NDP managed to achieve this without huge service cuts that hurt ordinary Albertans, not to mention costing them more user fees for unaccountable privatized services!

Well, that's all water under the bridge now, of course. The NDP isn't the government of Alberta any more. They've been fired, as the UCP keeps reminding us, so now things can get back to where God and the Fraser Institute intended them to be: privatized, unregulated, expensive and unavailable.

I mention the foreign-financed Vancouver-based market-fundamentalist think-tank, with which both MacKinnon (a PhD historian) and University of Calgary economist Bev Dahlby are associated, because this is a classic example of a typical Fraser Institute rhetorical technique.

To wit: basing conclusions that support the organization's ideological point of view on masses of quite accurate statistics that, examined honestly, say no such thing.

Sometimes my progressive friends are unhappy when I say the Fraser Institute's numbers are usually accurate. Well, they most often are. They get them from Statistics Canada, more often than not, and while you can't necessarily trust anything the Fraser Institute or the MacKinnon panel say, you can trust Statistics Canada.

What you can't trust is the things Fraser Institute apparatchiks say those numbers mean. That's where the Fraser Institute does its spinning: in its press releases, which it publishes by the score.

Now, you may say I've just cherry picked (another favourite Fraser Institute technique) four pages from a longer report. That would be true. I confess I haven't yet read the entire thing.

But I'm pretty confident that if any honest researcher wants to pull on this thread, MacKinnon's metaphorical sweater will unravel.

I would encourage any group in Alberta society the Kenney government plans to attack to examine the facts in the KPMG report from which the MacKinnon report's been spun. They may well find a different story from the one in the press release.

Author's note: Thanks to my colleague Judith Grossman, a professional researcher, for fact checking this post.

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: David J. Climenhaga

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