Oddly enough, there actually was a lesson that could be learned from the first budget of Alberta Premier Alison Redford’s government.
While the Budget Speech read yesterday by retiring Finance Minister Ron Liepert was self-evidently an election-year creation designed to offend no one who might wield influence, one ox was gored: post-secondary education.
While the media were reporting a 2.7-per-cent increase to post-secondary operating funds, they weren’t saying anything about the effects of inflation, huge population increases and big cuts to maintenance budgets that critics estimated would put the system back $80 to $100 million.
As the NDP’s Rachel Notley, MLA for Edmonton-Strathcona, observed: “Students will pay for that.” (And some of their parents, she forgot to add.)
So what community of voters doesn’t bother to make it into the polling booth in significant numbers? Uh, that would be post-secondary students.
Other than that, well, there’s not much to be said about this budget that hasn’t been said already in someone or other’s one-liner: Wildrose Party Leader Danielle Smith called it an “Alison in Wonderland budget.” I want readers to know they thought of that one first in the NDP caucus office, but then some fool Tweeted it and 10 minutes later Ms. Smith was repeating it. Either that, or everyone thought the same thing at the same time.
My favourite TV news reporter called it, privately, “the Dire Straits Budget.” Only this time, you know, it was “money for everything.”
But other than that sharp-tongued kind of thing, any observer of the hardball game of politics has to give this budget an A+ for pre-election optics. If it only gets a C- for prognostication – or, for that matter, a D or and F – how much difference is that going to make until after the election?
I mean, really people, you could almost hear Albertans sighing with relief that their particular ox wasn’t about to be gored – for a few weeks, maybe a year, or possibly, they hope, forever.
Whether it’s smoke and mirrors or reality, it’s a sign of how effective the budget was that most opposition politicians chose to attack it for the optimism of the revenue and economic estimates on which its income forecasts were based, not the benefits or lack thereof of the spending it proposes.
From a centre-left perspective, it’s pretty hard to assail things like a $400-per-month increase this spring for recipients of Assured Income for the Severely Handicapped – a sum that will bring this group, if only barely, above Statistics Canada’s poverty line. (And in fairness to Ms. Redford, that was another promise kept that she’s been knocked for not getting around to in these pages in the past.)
Expenditures of $16.5 billion to continue the repair work on the damage to the province’s infrastructure done back in the day by Ralph Klein, premier from 1992 to 2006? An increase of 7.9 per cent in health care spending in 2012-13? It’s hard to complain about those.
There were no significant program cuts, no public-sector job losses. It’s just not that easy to attack the government when they’re doing many of the things you said they should.
And if anyone noticed that all the extra government work was supposed to be done by only 500 new civil servants, and 260 of them will be jail guards, well, it wasn’t the media.
It was only a little easier to attack a budget like this from the right, where the politicians really do believe that all spending except on tax breaks for bazillionaires is bad, and that the Redford Tories, as Ms. Smith put it, “have no discipline.” But there were no tax increases, no new taxes either. Not even sin taxes. It’s hard even for die-hard rightists to work up a swivet about that when their supporters are secretly relieved, as it is said here most Albertans were.
Were the assumptions on which this budget’s deficit-elimination predictions were based too optimistic? The budget assumes, for example, there will be even higher oil prices, more profitable companies, and a much bigger population. Of course they were.
But were they so optimistic, as opposition politicians of both the left and right predicted, that the stuff is really going to hit the fan after the election? Well, that could very well happen, but nobody’s going to lose any sleep over it tonight.
And are Albertans smart enough to see through the exquisitely political artifice of Mr. Liepert’s budget and vote against the Redford Tories anyway, as opposition politicians of both the right and left gamely insisted yesterday they believed. Well, that could happen too. It certainly should happen.
But history suggests that it probably won’t.
This post also appears on Rabble.ca.