EDMONTON — Premier Jason Kenney warned Albertans on Wednesday evening that his government’s budget was going to cut spending, part of the necessary work to reduce government expenditures and turn the economy around.
Thursday’s budget would see a nearly three per cent cut, he said.
“It will be the most important Alberta budget in 25 years,” Kenney said in a televised suppertime address to the province. “Now, let’s be clear: this will not be an easy budget.”
In anticipation of Kenney’s address, the New Democrats and organized labour in the province went on the attack, painting the upcoming budget as an attack on essential services and vulnerable Albertans and trotting out well-worn lines about American-style health care.
But Kenney, and earlier in the day, Finance Minister Travis Toews, attempted to two-step on both sides of the issue. On one hand, cuts. On the other hand, they could be worse.
This isn’t a return to 1993, the first full year Ralph Klein was in power in the province, they promised.
“Back then they had to cut spending by 18 per cent, not three per cent,” Kenney said.
The speech came as Alberta continues to linger in a prolonged recession; unemployment rates hover around 6.6 per cent, about one percentage point higher than the national average. Other indicators, such as a spike in suicides, point to the toll the sclerotic economy is taking on mental health in the province; for each percentage increase in unemployment, 16 people commit suicide, according to a report last month from the University of Calgary School of Public Policy.
Kenney’s United Conservative Party swept to power last spring by vowing to turn the provincial economy around and using every possible legislative and rhetorical tool possible to ensure pipeline access to new markets was achieved. Kenney also promised to reduce a taxation and red-tape burden that, the party claimed, was driving away billions of dollars in private investment in the province.
One of its very first acts was to commission a report into the state of the province’s finances.
That report, completed by former Saskatchewan finance minister Janice MacKinnon last month, found the province would need to shed $600 million in spending if there was a chance of balancing the budget by 2022-23 and that in many instances, such as health care, where the province was spending more per capita than other provinces, was delivering results that fell short. If spending was in line with other provinces, MacKinnon reported, Alberta would save some $10 billion annually.
“Without decisive action, the province faces year after year of deficits and ever-increasing debt,” the report said.
While that report was seen as a blueprint to balance (or to cut down to the bone, depending on perspective) Thursday will be the first look at how the province actually intends to reign in spending while maintaining promised public services. Kenney warned that the federal government, a minority Parliament under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, couldn’t be trusted to protect Albertans, and indeed, that it had stood against Alberta’s “vital economic interests.” He compared the province to a household, that spending restraint would be necessary, saying it was key to be “self-reliant.”
“We need to dig deep as a community, caring for the least fortunate, while unleashing the spirit of enterprise that has made Alberta the envy of the world,” Kenney said as his speech closed. “I am confident that we will emerge through this time of adversity stronger than ever, with a bright future as Alberta that is strong and free.”