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Jason Kenney's 'blue ribbon panel' is sharpening its razors

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Jason Kenney with his "blue ribbon" panel. From left to right: Mike Percy, Dave Mowat, Travis Toews, Janice MacKinnon, Kenney, Kim Henderson, Jay Ramotar, and Bev Dahlby (Photo: Government of Alberta).

Brace yourselves, people. Alberta Premier Jason Kenney has announced his "blue ribbon" panel to do a "deep dive" into the province's books and figure out how to get them into the black in less than three years, eliminate debt, and do it all without raising taxes or introducing a sales tax.

Never mind the ribbon, the emphasis should be on the blue. Because there's only one way to do what Kenney is talking about, and it won't be pretty.

I suspect an appropriate name for this group would be The Sweeney Todd. You know, Cockney rhyming slang for something along the lines of Oh My Gawd! This is going to turn out to be like eliminating the mortgage so fast you have to sell the house.

Still, give Kenney credit, it was a clever piece of political marketing, with the chair of the six-member panel a former New Democratic Party finance minister, which is certain to be noted immediately and many times hereafter by the United Conservative Party government's media cheering section, and her vice a former Alberta Liberal.

But don't worry about that if you're a die-hard Conservative, they're the kind of New Democrat and Liberal that radical market fundamentalists can love.

Janice MacKinnon, now a University of Saskatchewan history professor, is a former New Democrat alright, but not really one that can be called a Dipper in good standing if you happen to believe in the sorts of things that normally define New Democrats.

She was long-ago Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow's finance minister and her signal policy achievement in 1993 was closing 52 small rural hospitals throughout the province. Saskatchewanians, rural ones in particular, have never forgiven the NDP for this betrayal of New Democratic principles, ironically contributing to the rise and long success of the right-wing Saskatchewan Party.

Truth be told, if you're serious about saving money in health care, there are really only two options: physician salaries, which aren't going to be cut, and closing rural hospitals. Well, if Prairie history repeats itself, rural Albertans can't say they weren't warned!

How a historian is qualified to make economic recommendations is a question for another day. But if you want to know what MacKinnon is likely to recommend for Alberta, look no further than her own recent history. To wit, what she has already recommended for Alberta in the company of the University of Calgary's Jack Mintz, pet economist of Canada's market-fundamentalist media: Harsh austerity, cutting public sector pay, restructuring health care, and a charming faith in the fantasy that tax cuts for corporations will create jobs.

Vice-chair Mike Percy is now a University of Alberta business professor, but back in the day he was the finance critic of Liberal leader Laurence Decore's opposition in the Alberta legislature. That was when Alberta Liberals campaigned against Ralph Klein's Progressive Conservatives by arguing they were wet, squishy and far too left wing.

Klein proved them wrong, but Percy nevertheless would fit right in with MacKinnon and Mintz. He was an Alberta Liberal MLA from 1993 to 1997, the party's most right-wing period, and he has been a loud and consistent voice for discredited conservative economic nostrums ever since.

The other members of The Sweeney are:

  • Dave Mowat, former president and CEO of ATB Financial, the Crown-owned Alberta financial institution that Kenney badly wants to privatize. Mowat was hired by former premier Rachel Notley to lead the review of the province's ludicrously low oil royalties that discovered what the fossil fuel industry wants was exactly the right thing for Alberta after all. Who knew? If nothing else, this proved that Big Oil could capture a social democratic government as effectively as a conservative one, not that it helped the NDP much come election time.
  • Kim Henderson, former deputy minister to B.C. premier Christy Clark as well as a former DM of finance in the B.C. government. She was fired by the NDP in that province when they came to power in 2017.
  • Bev Dahlby, a British-trained PhD, University of Calgary economist and former International Monetary Fund boffin. In addition to his day job, he is associated with the neoliberal C.D. Howe Institute and the even-more-market-fundamentalist Fraser Institute.
  • Jay Ramotar, a senior Alberta civil servant who previously was DM of Alberta Health and a former member of the board of the Canadian Council for Public Private Partnerships. In 2013, at least, he was Alberta's top-paid civil servant, with a salary of $406,379. Come the worst, he's unlikely to be the public employee taking a haircut.

If you're a rural Albertan expecting a little down home, school of hard knocks common sense, you won't find it in this elite collection of well-heeled right-wing academics, a banker, and senior civil servants. The only guy who came faintly close in this stage production was Finance Minister Travis Toews (pronounced Taves), the MLA for Grande Prairie-Wapiti and the sole cabinet minister from northern Alberta, there mainly for decorative purposes at yesterday's one-man show.

It's important to remember that the promise cutting taxes for billionaires and corporations will create jobs is guaranteed to fall flat, just like it always does. Look for plenty of stock buybacks by already rich corporations instead.

My guess is the panel will recommend outrageous spending cuts to public services, Kenney will shave it back by a percentage point or two, maybe to the 5 per cent he's rumoured to be telling all his ministers to come up with immediately, and we'll all be expected to be relieved.

Readers will get the picture, though: We're in for a shave.

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

Photo: Government of Alberta

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