It is a uniquely Canadian tradition that a finance minister wears a new pair of shoes when delivering a budget. While the origins of the tradition are unclear, several politicians have played with it to make a political point: Jim Flaherty resoled an old pair of shoes to symbolize parsimony when he tabled his 2008 austerity federal budget; New Brunswick’s Peter Mesheau ironically wore hiking boots when delivering a provincial budget with tax and user fee increases (“hikes”); and Carole Taylor donned a pair of green shoes to deliver a British Columbia provincial budget she claimed had an environmental focus.
With this in mind, the symbolism of Alberta’s Minister of Finance, Travis Toews, pulling on a pair of cowboy boots before tabling the provincial budget is hard to miss – Travis and the United Conservatives are about to deliver a good old-fashioned shitkicking to Alberta’s working class.
Premier Jason Kenney has committed to ending provincial deficits and achieving a surplus by 2023, but he has also promised deep corporate tax cuts. The result is a budget that aggressively puts corporate interests first, by attacking those of workers, Indigenous people, and the environment.
Toews projects reducing corporate tax from 12% to 8% by 2023. Using the 2017-18 year as a baseline, once implemented this would result in an annual loss of around $1.2 billion in revenue, nearly 3% of the provincial total. To make this up, the UCP will implement deep program cuts and ratchet up user fees. Operating grants for post-secondary education will be cut by nearly 8%, and tuition increases allowed up to 7% per year. Social assistance payments will be de-indexed from the cost of living, and funding to municipalities will be chopped. The government will slash the size of the public service by nearly 8% – more than 2000 jobs – over 4 years. The budget for environmental enforcement is halved, from $14 million in 2018 to $7 million in 2019, and funding for the climate change portfolio is axed by nearly 75% from $103 million in 2019 to only $29 million in 2020.
Funding for the Ministry of Indigenous Relations will be cut by 27% over four years, and funding for consultations and land claims will be reduced by 40%, from $28 million in 2019 to only $17 million by 2021. Notably, the only areas of Indigenous Relations to not face reduced funding are the First Nations Development Fund, funds for the Aboriginal Indigenous Opportunities Corporation, and the Indigenous Litigation Fund, all of which are specifically dedicated to supporting Indigenous communities seeking oil and gas development.
In many spending areas, the government says it will “hold the line” on current funding levels. Ricardo Acuna, Executive Director of the Parkland Institute, noted on Facebook that this is actually a huge funding cut. “The Government’s fiscal tables peg inflation (Consumer Price Index) and population growth in Alberta over the next four years at 18.1%. That means wherever they say they are “holding the line”, it will actually be a cut of at least 18.1%. This is the case for K-12 education – at least an 18.1% cut overall over the next four years, plus some reductions to the per student grant. In post-secondary it will be worse, because there will be a nominal cut of 11.8% over the next four years. Add to that the 18.1% in CPI and pop growth and you are looking at close to a 30% in post secondary education funding. The corporate tax cut will cost $1.1 billion this year and $1.1 billion next year, despite the UCP’s magical assertions that the impact will be well under a billion dollars. Kenney can say all he wants that the cuts are minor, but that’s a lie. A 2.8% overall cut, plus 18.1% in CPI and population is actually worse than the Klein cuts of the 90s in terms of percentage.”
Alberta Communist Party leader Naomi Rankin said this budget, while very aggressive, is not unexpected from the hard-right United Conservative Party. “There are no surprises in this Alberta budget. We already knew that Jason Kenney and his resurrected provincial Tory party were completely in the pockets of the oil and gas monopolies, who have nothing but empty promises and false accusations about the cause of the downturn in employment in their sector. We already knew they were promising endless tax cuts and giveaways to their corporate buddies at the expense of working people’s jobs, livelihoods and government services. And we already knew they have nothing but denial to bring to the global struggle against climate catastrophe.”
Rankin also noted that Alberta’s labour and progressive movements are not prepared to take this attack without fighting back. “We have already also seen the fightback getting underway. The Alberta Union of Public Employees has been organizing information pickets and rallies at various government work sites around the province and held a rally at the legislature last Friday evening, with support from the Alberta Federation of Labour.”