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If you're an Albertan who demands low taxes, balanced budgets and pipelines, expect to be told to look in the mirror

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Alberta Finance Minister Joe Ceci (Photo: David J. Climenhaga)

By way of setting the stage for today's budget speech, Finance Minister Joe Ceci told the media Monday that completion of the Trans Mountain Pipeline to the British Columbia Coast near Vancouver is the key to Alberta balancing its budget.

No, says a sharp political observer with progressive leanings of my acquaintance, figuring out a sustainable revenue source for Alberta is the key to balancing the province's budget!

No, I can hear scores of conservative observers disagreeing with similar vehemence, a dose of fiscal realism in the form of strict budget austerity is the key to balancing our budget!

One could argue there is some truth to both those arguments -- as long as balancing the budget is your principal goal and you're prepared to pay the price that goes with both approaches, to wit, higher taxes, lower spending, or some combination of both.

Of course, putting all our economic eggs in the Trans Mountain basket may be overselling the capability of one pipeline to tidewater to solve all Alberta's economic woes, even if the people who live on the salt chuck can be persuaded to agree with the proposition, or forced to. Still, the political appeal of the idea in Alberta is undeniable.

The NDP government has built the impact of the Trans Mountain Pipeline into this year's budget, Ceci noted, "because that's what everybody believes will happen."

I'm not so sure about that. There are people in British Columbia who think they can stop it. And the Opposition headed by United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney is undoubtedly praying the project will flop -- preferably with environmentalist Tzeporah Berman playing a role so that they can blame the NDP for daring to employ her in their now-all-but-forgotten social license effort.

Be that as it may, Albertans need to brace themselves for a very Albertan reaction from our neighbours in British Columbia. And by this I don't just mean from environmentalists who are unalterably opposed to any more pipelines from the tar sands (and I use that term advisedly in this context). I think a lot of British Columbians who are undecided about Kinder Morgan Inc.'s pipeline expansion megaproject, and even a few who wholeheartedly support it, will be annoyed by the suggestion they have a role they must play in balancing Alberta's budget.

Here's what British Columbians are going to think:

Why should we have to bear all the environmental risks and potential costs of your irrational political need to balance your budget without paying the taxes required to operate your province?

It shouldn't be our problem if you insist on adopting irresponsible neoliberal tax policies and then can't offer the basic level of services a civilized society demands without shipping diluted bitumen through our territory! Just go away, and take your bitumen with you!

Trust me, this is not only what a lot of British Columbians are going to think, some of them are going to say it out loud. Never mind that taxes are pretty low in B.C. too. Remember, in many cases, public services there are worse.

You can also trust me that this is going to seriously get up a lot of Albertans' noses.

Now, if this doesn't sound familiar to you, it should.

After all, this is a just a slightly modified version of argument Alberta politicians have directed for decades at the governments of other provinces that have insisted on a reasonable level of social programs. It has usually been made in the context of the widely misunderstood federal equalization program, which is enshrined in Canada's Constitution to ensure a reasonable level of public service everywhere in Canada.

Former Wildrose Leader Brian Jean put this explicitly in a 2016 opinion piece in the Calgary Herald, writing: "Why should Albertans continue to pay into a system that subsidizes cheap daycare and tuition for Quebec?"

Jean made that point while complaining about opposition to the now nearly forgotten Energy East Pipeline proposal in that province, but the argument was (and is) often made as starkly as I've excerpted it here.

Like Jean, Kenney says he would hold a referendum demanding removal of revenues from non-renewable resources from the equalization formula, never mind that he was sitting at the bargaining table on the federal side when the current formula was devised.

Constitutionally speaking, this would mean very little. But it might be good politics here in Alberta, especially with the conservative base.

The argument as made by both conservative leaders, nevertheless, was and is designed to exploit the same resentments among Albertans.

But you have to ask the question: If it's an outrage for Alberta taxpayers to be asked to contribute funds that are used for social programs in Quebec, why is it not an outrage for British Columbia taxpayers to be expected to carry the risk and the costs of Alberta's decision to provide welfare to billionaires by not having an adequate tax policy?

Because it's in the Constitution? Oh … wait.

No one has told us to look in the mirror yet, but I reckon it's coming.

This post also appears on David Climenhaga's blog, AlbertaPolitics.ca.

Photo: David J. Climenhaga

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