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The Ghost of Heritage Funds Past Comes to Haunt Alberta

But Danielle Smith’s TV speech won’t bring serious budgeting to the province.

David Climenhaga 22 Feb 2024Alberta Politics

David J. Climenhaga is an award-winning journalist, author, post-secondary teacher, poet and trade union communicator. He blogs at Follow him on X at @djclimenhaga.

I’ve never actually heard that there’s a ghost in the Premier’s office at the Alberta legislature, but apparently there’s a dusty old speech that was left in a drawer by some forgotten premier in the distant past. Peter Lougheed, probably.

It goes something like this.

“As we all know, Alberta is blessed with abundant natural resource wealth; however, the volatile price of oil and gas often has us riding a budget roller coaster from year to year.

“And trying to predict world oil and gas prices is much like predicting the weather during an Alberta spring….

“Bouncing between years of plenty, and then having to choose between incurring massive debt or cutting key social programs is not the recurring story Albertans want to see time and again.

“It is time for our province to implement a long-term strategic financial plan that gets us to a stable balanced budget each and every year with predictable and stable revenues to fund our core social programs.”

Do you remember hearing something that?

That’s because — so the legend goes — sooner or later every Alberta premier starts to wander around the office late at night, maybe with a drink in hand, or maybe not, and finally spies a desk drawer that hasn’t been opened in a long, long time.

They pry it open — it may take a while, because unused desk drawers can be sticky — and there’s the dusty speech, the paper on which it was written, possibly with Lougheed’s personal quill pen, brown and curling at the edges.

The premier sits down in his — or her — chair and begins to read….

“Say, this is pretty good stuff,” she thinks. “With a little change here or there, I could read it tomorrow.”

And so she does….

The words quoted above didn’t actually come from Lougheed’s pen, of course. They were taken right from the fresh, white, crisp and sharply computer printed pages of Premier Danielle Smith’s televised pre-budget speech to the province last night.

But if you thought it sounded familiar, that’s OK, because it was. If you’ve been around Alberta for any time at all, you will have heard pretty much the same thing at one time or another from the mouths of Don Getty, Ralph Klein, Ed Stelmach, Alison Redford, Jim Prentice or Jason Kenney.

I don’t recall Dave Hancock saying anything like that, but he wasn’t really around as premier long enough to do anything except get his portrait on the wall.

As for Rachel Notley, I can hardly recall what she said about taxes once she became premier, but whatever it was, she delivered pretty much what her predecessor Prentice had promised.

Getting back to Smith’s eight-minute video… other than going back on a promised tax cut, giving a shoutout to Klein and taking a cheap shot at the federal Liberals for letting the prime minister come to Edmonton to make the UCP look foolish by spending some money on the housing crisis, she stuck pretty close to the legendary Lougheed speech.

“Bluntly stated, our province has become unsustainably dependent on non-renewable resource revenues,” she said. This is true.

But we just can’t rely on non-renewable resource revenues to balance Alberta’s budget year after year. “That is a recipe for massive debt and cuts to health and education whenever the price of oil takes a dip for a year or two — or more.” This is also true.

“It is not sustainable.” This is true in spades!

This was the moment that Smith almost had me.

She’s really going to do something, I thought, to solve the problems caused by Alberta’s ridiculous, childish approach to budgeting that has been the economic bane of this province since Getty was premier.

She’s really going to do it! She’s actually brave enough to impose a sales tax!

What the hell, I thought, why not? It took Nixon to go to China. (With a little push from Kissinger.) Why not Smith to impose a sales tax?

Then the letdown.

“Some say the answer is higher income taxes or a sales tax,” Smith went on. “I reject this.”

Of course she rejected it.

This is Alberta.

Instead, Smith promised austerity even if oil revenues stay high.

Rest assured, though, any money that gets pumped out of the ground will go somewhere.

Just not to anything we need here in Alberta.

Take note frustrated doctors and nurses thinking of leaving Alberta for greener pastures to the west or east, any dime you manage to pry out of the hands of Smith’s finance minister will be bent.

As for putting Alberta on a “path to prosperity that will last long after our last barrel of oil has been produced,” y’all know how likely that is to happen if austerity is the medication Smith prescribes to cure our province’s ills.

In a year or two, with an election looming and the NDP breathing down her neck, mark my words that Smith will pull out the provincial wallet and start spending once more.

The spectre that haunts Alberta — fair taxes — has disappeared again. Someday maybe a future premier, will find that speech. Maybe they’ll even dust it off and read it aloud.

Then they’ll stuff it back in the same drawer and forget about it just like all those other premiers did.

Face it, we’re never going to grow up and fix the problem with Alberta’s finances.

Alberta will remain forever the poor little rich kid of Confederation.  [Tyee]

Read more: Politics, Alberta

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