VICTORIA – Albertans have always laughed about their long-standing reputation as a reckless, immature society. The classic bumper sticker, now available as a T-shirt or coffee cup in several variations, states: “Please God, give us one more oil boom, we promise not to p--- it away this time.”
Now they’ve thrown out the government that finally tried to stop blowing money like a roughneck fresh out of the bush. Jim Prentice had the gall to propose raising income taxes for high wage earners, doing away with former Alberta treasurer Stockwell Day’s signature flat tax.
In response, voters have abruptly replaced the 44-year Progressive Conservative dynasty with an upstart NDP that wants to tax the rich and corporations even more. Facing an oil slump, layoffs and a huge structural deficit in Alberta’s lavish public service, NDP premier-elect Rachel Notley is committed to a 50-per-cent increase in the minimum wage and another “review” of resource royalties. One headline in a national paper summed it up: “Go home, Alberta. You’re drunk.”
In the sober days after the election, a few truths emerge. Alberta hasn’t been a fiscally conservative, small-government place for a long time. Among other things, it has ratcheted up teacher and nurse wages across the country. Alberta is broke, again, and even the NDP is afraid to resort to a sales tax.
The minimum wage hike is a pet policy of Canada’s labour federations, which somehow remain convinced that poverty can be eliminated by state order.
On the positive side, Notley has promised to end corporate and union donations to political parties, as has already been done federally. B.C. should be next, but the gravy train of business donations is too tempting for our nominally Liberal government.
Here at the B.C. legislature, an NDP staffer passed out cans of Orange Crush to celebrate. NDP leader John Horgan pronounced himself “ecstatic,” and hastened to assure reporters that Notley is “as competent as she sounds.”
Notley now has to sort through a caucus that includes typical NDP place-holders, college students and union staff running in faint-hope constituencies. Soon after the result, the party pulled down its website platform and candidate biographies, as Notley began phoning energy companies to reassure them Alberta will be “A-OK” on her watch.
Horgan likes to describe the “capital flight” from new NDP governments as if it’s just a show put on by big business. Plummeting stock prices and relocation of corporate offices are all staged, according to the party line, nothing to do with actual investment conditions created by NDP policies. This fiction is all Horgan dares to say publicly, because it’s what his party base devoutly believes.
Besides, they’re only branch offices of multinational oil companies like Shell, Horgan said. He used his favourite Tommy Douglas quote, about the bad news of a big oil company leaving. “The good news is, the oil is staying here.”
B.C.’s natural gas might be staying here too. Horgan insists he supports a natural gas export industry, but his party seems more concerned with an ascending Green Party, and an urban base that believes you can run a resource economy on windmills and solar panels.
Notley supports twinning the TransMountain pipeline, while Horgan continues to insist he has no opinion on the project Adrian Dix so memorably opposed.
The Alberta NDP has a steep learning curve ahead. The B.C. NDP has a couple of years to see if the appearance of a like-minded Alberta government is a boost for them, or a cautionary tale for voters.
(Tom Fletcher is legislature reporter and columnist for Black Press. Twitter: @tomfletcherbc Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)