What lies in store for Alberta now that voters have elected an NDP government?
Even new Premier Rachel Notley may not know the answer to that question — she’s said that it was only in the final week of the election that she realized the polls might be true and her party was heading to power.
Alberta Farmer put that question to two political analysts. One lays out the case why radical change is unlikely. The other says rural Albertans have good reason to be concerned about the changing of the guard.
‘Albertastan?’ Not likely, says analyst
Rural communities expert predicts NDP government will move cautiously and strong opposition will push rural issues
The threats about moving to Saskatchewan — some only half in jest — started flying around rural Alberta the moment it became clear that Rachel Notley was going to be the province’s first NDP premier.
But there’s no need to pack your suitcases because government is structured for “continuity, not for change,” says the director of the Alberta Centre for Sustainable Rural Communities.
“While ideologically they are to the left, it’s very unlikely to be this immense, unimaginable, paradigmatic change to how politics and public policy in Alberta work,” said Lars Hallstrom.
The very nature of government also makes radical shifts unlikely, he said.
“We design our institutions politically to be averse to change, so that the structures we have in place do stay in place. Even though the party changes, the people who are doing a lot of the on-the-ground work are the same people.”
While Alberta’s governing party hasn’t changed in 44 years, “people have been moving in and out of cabinet constantly” since Alison Redford was elected as premier in 2012, he added.
“The point of government is not to have elected officials who are experts in their field,” said Hallstrom. “The point is that the bureaucratic civil service is there, and they have the expertise and knowledge. They’re the administrative bodies that keep the programming in place.
“While policies over time will change, the practices of government and the administration of programming will be remarkably consistent.”
Issues such as a royalty review and progressive tax system — major sticking points among rural voters during the election — “won’t be implemented next week,” he said.
“There’s no promise from the NDP that it is going to change that. What it’s going to do is look at it. That’s what Albertans asked for,” said Hallstrom.
“If we look at the survey that the Progressive Conservatives made available to the public going into the budget, many Albertans indicated that changes to royalties were acceptable to them, as were sales taxes, as were changes to a more progressive tax system.”
On the whole, the NDP “has quite a balanced platform,” said Hallstrom.
“It is not, in my opinion, catastrophic in any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “Premier Notley and her cabinet are very well aware of where they were elected and understand that they will need to be slightly conservative progressives.”
The NDP’s “emphasis on equity” could be good news for rural Albertans, said Hallstrom, whose centre, part of the University of Alberta, studies issues affecting rural communities.
Recent Tory administrations have been “withdrawing” support from rural community development “both fiscally as well as philosophically,” he said.
“I wouldn’t say that rural community development has been a priority for Progressive Conservatives for a long time. They’ve invested at times, but they’ve also disinvested.”
The ongoing “ebb and flow” of rural grants and programs has created some unpredictability for rural municipalities and organizations over the past several years. Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development has “struggled conceptually and practically” with the rural development piece of its portfolio, said Hallstrom.
“Other provinces have taken more pronounced and slightly more informed perspectives on rural community development and how rural development fits in that broader portfolio,” he said. “I’m cautiously optimistic that we’ll see greater predictability and a greater sense of perspective around investing in people and investing in communities from the NDP.”
Another factor is the political dynamic — a strong opposition coupled with a government that can’t assume it has an unshakable hold on power.
“A Wildrose opposition will be a tempering voice in terms of public debate and discourse with the NDP,” said Hallstrom. “If anything, there may be an opportunity here for (farmers’) voices to be heard a little more clearly and a little more loudly through the Wildrose.”
But even without that strong conservative opposition, fears about the NDP ignoring rural issues are “unfounded,” he said.
“Rural votes still matter. Agriculture is still a huge sector in this province,” he said.
“Is there potential for change? Absolutely. That’s what people voted for. But for people to think that the NDP is just going to ignore rural Alberta in favour of its urban supporters is really misguided.”
Red flags abound with new NDP regime
The deficit, taxes, a royalty review, minimum wage hikes,and workplace rules are just some areas of concern, says small business watchdog
Rural Albertans — and farmers in particular — are right to be worried about the new NDP government, says the Canadian Federation of Independent Business.
“There’s a fairly high level of anxiety and concern about what it means,” said Richard Truscott, the organization’s vice-president for Alberta and B.C.
“If you look at the NDP platform, there’s certainly some things that may benefit small businesses, farmers, and agribusinesses. But there’s also some things that ought to concern them.”
There are many parts of the NDP’s platform that could spell trouble, he said.
“That long list starts with the oil and gas royalty review, corporate tax increases, a big minimum wage hike, potentially the extension of the Occupational Health and Safety rules and mandatory WCB coverage for farms — the list goes on and on.”
These are issues that affect the bottom line of farmers and other rural entrepreneurs, he said.
“A lot of it comes down to dollars and cents. Is this NDP government going to be conservative progressives and govern the province accordingly? Or is it going to turn on the spending taps and hike taxes?
“That’s something that a lot of people in rural Alberta have some major concerns about.”
Truscott predicts that, over the next three years, Albertans will see “a lot of potential issues” surface that could harm small businesses.
High on that list is the provincial deficit — forecast by the outgoing Progressive Conservative administration to hit $5 billion this fiscal year.
Raising corporate taxes and increasing personal taxes for higher-income individuals isn’t likely to raise that much, said Truscott.
“In my own view, looking at the province’s finances right now, the plan to balance the books is ambitious and may be overly optimistic,” he said.
Oil prices need to rebound for that to happen, he added.
“If oil prices continue to slowly rise over the next 12 months, that may save their bacon and make it a lot easier to do what they planned to do in balancing the books. But they have to rise and also stay high for the next six to 12 months to really make a meaningful impact on the government’s deficit.”
The plan to review oil royalties is another big worry because the oil and gas sector is so critical to the economy.
“That sector alone is a big part of the reason Alberta has been so successful over the last 30 or 40 years,” said Truscott. “So we’ve got to be careful what we do on that front. We certainly don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Mixed track record
But it’s too soon to tell how the province will fare under the new regime mainly because the Alberta NDP has never held power, said Truscott, adding the party’s track record is “mixed.”
“We’ve seen some fiscally responsible NDP governments in certain places in the country in the past, and we’ve seen the opposite as well,” he said.
In Saskatchewan, former NDP premier Roy Romanow (who is now advising incoming Premier Rachel Notley) ran a tighter fiscal ship from 1991 to 2001 than his Tory predecessor, Grant Devine, he said.
“That was a government that was heavily embroiled in mega-projects and a lot of government spending, whereas the Romanow NDP was actually quite fiscally conservative by comparison,” said Truscott.
But NDP governments also tend to “take a more interventionist path and ramp up spending and taxes,” which is what happened in Ontario under former premier Bob Rae, he added.
“The province charted a completely different course for a very short period of time. At the end of the day, what it was planning to do simply didn’t add up.”
The big question now is whether the NDP will govern like traditional progressives — “turning on the spending taps and hiking taxes” — or like conservative progressives.
Albertans will just have to “wait and see.”
“We’ll see what direction they go and how bold they are with some of these policy directions that they had outlined in their platform,” said Truscott, adding his organization will be watching closely.
“We’ll definitely cheerlead good policy. But we’ll be there if they do decide to take a direction that’s going to harm small business and impact entrepreneurs, we’ll be there to push back, and push back hard.”