A photo of Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at a news conference on Tuesday, April 19 where he warned agains public auto insurance.
Alberta Premier Jason Kenney at a news conference announcing his party's Alberta at Work program on Tuesday, April 19, 2022. Credit: YouTube

Did Alberta Premier Jason Kenney just win the next Alberta election for the NDP? 

This is a serious question, people.

Responding to a question about Alberta’s escalating auto instance premiums yesterday from Postmedia political columnist Rick Bell at a news conference on another topic, Kenney accused the NDP Opposition of planning to implement public auto insurance!

If only that were true!

“What we want is a competitive marketplace,” a haggard-looking Kenney began to ramble in response to Bell’s query. “And that’s how the market works. We Albertans believe in markets. We don’t believe in socialism.”

Kenney went on to paint public auto insurance as a Soviet style policy.

“Many other provinces have had the government take over the insurance market,” he bloviated onward. “And that hasn’t worked out for consumers. It means you only have once choice, uh-hum, kinda Soviet style, to go to. In many other provinces, you don’t get to shop around and find the right policy for you. So that’s the alternative. I’m hearing that’s where the NDP wants to take the province. I think that would be a disaster. So what we want is more competition, and hopefully that, over time, will get rates down.” (Emphasis added.)

Jason Kenney, Alberta Premier, Tuesday, April 19

I’m sure listeners all across the province perked up momentarily when they heard the premier’s idle speculation about what Opposition Leader and former Premier Rachel Notley’s New Democrats might have in mind. 

No doubt insurance industry lobbyists had a similarly startled, although not necessarily as positive, reaction.

After all, there’s a good reason why, when Alberta’s economy is doing well, so many of the pickup trucks you see every day on your morning commute have Saskatchewan plates. Their owners, living in Alberta and employed in the oil patch, are keeping an address back home so they can pay lower Saskatchewan insurance rates. 

The only choice Albertans have with auto insurance – notwithstanding the ability to get bills on a variety of companies’ colourful letterhead – is between the insurance they need and the insurance they can afford.

Public auto insurance working in other provinces

I imagine the Conservative Premiers of the two Prairie provinces to the east of us will not be pleased to hear themselves accused of running governments similar in principle to that of the Soviet Union.

My guess is both of them would be delighted for ideological reasons to dump public auto insurance too if they thought they could get away with it.

They know that they can’t for the simple reason that their voters would turn them out of office. After all, government-run auto insurance pretty consistently delivers less expensive coverage than the “free market” touted by Kenney. 

The Premier of British Columbia, a New Democrat, would be entitled to be as offended as his colleagues in Saskatchewan and Manitoba at the Soviet label, but he has suffered some recent grief with high public insurance rates in his province – the result of bad policy choices made by a previous market-fundamentalist B.C. government, as it turns out. His government responded by bringing rates down an average 20 per cent last year. 

UCP scrapping insurance cap lead to higher rates in Alberta

Rates in Alberta shot up sharply after the UCP removed the NDP cap on insurance rates soon after getting elected in the 2019 election, rising in some cases as much as 30 per cent. 

Albertans learned recently that as a result of the UCP removing the cap they are paying hundreds of millions of dollars more to insure their vehicles while the insurance industry is raking in profits, having collected $385 million more in premiums in 2020 than they did in 2019.

But all that the NDP has rather timidly promised is to restore the rate cap that kept insurance rates from rising too quickly during the party’s four years in power. 

So this might be a rare case where it makes sense to do what Kenney suggests. At the very least, he has handed the NDP an opportunity to do a little polling and see what Albertans really think of government auto insurance. I’d wager the idea’s as popular here as it is in Saskatchewan.

Kenney’s jobs funding not keeping pace with costs

As for the actual purpose of the rather unfocused news conference, it was to tout the UCP’s vaguely defined job-training effort, Alberta at Work, which includes money that would have been spent anyway on post-secondary training and a federal job-creation program to which the province is providing some add-on funds. 

It’s always kind of cute the way Kenney tries to take credit for federal (Liberal) spending without actually saying where the idea and much of the money comes from. 

The sums of money associated with the Alberta program are substantial – the government claims $600 million. This really needs some serious number crunching to see just how much is actually new money, and where Peter is being robbed to pay Paul.

NDP Labour Critic Christina Gray noted that “the funding from Advanced Education doesn’t come close to offsetting the deep cuts to programs and steep rise in tuition that we’ve seen these past years.”

“At the same time,” she added, “the funds from Community and Social Services are for programs that won’t be developed or introduced for at least another year.”

Alberta’s unemployment rate remains the highest in Canada outside Atlantic Canada. 

The news release wasn’t particularly informative, but it did have canned quotes from Mr. Kenney, and three additional cabinet ministers who all appeared at the news conference – recently demoted Labour Minister Kaycee Madu, Advanced Education Minister Demetrios Nicolaides, and Social Services Minister Jason Luan. 

In addition, there were quotes from nine of the usual suspects trotted out for such occasions.

This effort certainly suggests the UCP is now is full election campaign mode. 

Alas, while the many quotes from the likes of the president of the Business Council of Canada, the Council of Canadian Innovators, and the Edmonton and Calgary Chambers of Commerce may have been rich in enthusiasm, they were lean in meaningful facts.

Still, this does raise an interesting question: Where the heck was Jobs, Economy and Innovation Minister Doug Schweitzer? 

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...