The political tradition is that just before an impending election, governments present a highly optimistic good-news budget, deny that it is an election budget, and then promptly call an election a few weeks later. This time around the exercise has lost some of its drama since the Redford government passed legislation to establish a fixed election date — sort of. We know it will be sometime within a three-month period, budget or not.
There is another Alberta pre-election political ritual that sees the premier and the cabinet travelling around the province on a “listen to the citizen” tour. That usually includes grants being given out, ribbons being cut and earnest meetings with local officials where ministers dutifully display supposed concern and interest. Such listening tours are held every year, but in non-election years the ritual is usually carried out by a few obscure ministers on quick fly-in visits.
One of the realities of the Alberta government budget is that agriculture and rural development are relatively insignificant concerns. Headlines in the urban media always tout the billions being spent on health, education, welfare and infrastructure and that’s fair enough as those are important to all citizens. The Energy and Environment Department budgets are usually the next to be mentioned. Again those are big concerns to the economy. However, you would think that the second-largest economic activity in the province should deserve some attention, but alas not even a single line about the agriculture budget in the urban media. I guess that’s the reality of living in the most highly urbanized province in Canada.
Perhaps being ignored is sometimes good — at least you are not a target and can just go on doing your business with little notice. That’s probably worked well for the Agriculture Department over the years, as it hasn’t faced any massive cutbacks since the Klein years when the whole government was put on a 10 per cent chopping block. That cutback came after a huge expansion program under premiers Lougheed and Getty. In those days they were trying to not only expand agricultural production, but also to diversify into new products and further processing. Those were the good old days. But I digress.
The only thing that throws a wrench into the ag budget is when there is a weather or market disaster. That’s when the department’s budget is blown out of the water and the minister has to ask for help from the premier and the rest of cabinet. The cost of such calamities usually exceed the entire regular budget of the department.
Since this is an election year this is more of a “fantasy” budget so to speak — no bad news, no higher taxes — only good news, at least until after the election. There are plenty of promises and new spending to appeal to the most voters. For agriculture, the budget tends to be more of the same with major support going to AFSC. That support would tend to be more secure and have a higher priority since it’s for crop insurance, income support and lending programs. ALMA continues to come through the budgeting process unscathed and with multi-year funding still in place.
The ag budget also contains that perennial mantra — more money “to support the opening and development of new markets for our agricultural products,” or words to that effect. It’s a statement that has been regurgitated in annual budgets for probably 40 years. At any rate the ag budget comes in at $950 million, a mere pittance compared to big-dog departments like Health, Education and Welfare.
Rural areas do get additional benefits that city folks might not always get and that doesn’t come out of the agriculture budget. There’s $3.5 billion for provincial highways and $290 million for the transportation of nearly 300,000 K-12 students across Alberta. Rural residents would benefit more than farmers from those expenditures. There are also a number of health-related programs and support services designed to keep standards and access available to rural and small-town residents.
Even though this Alberta government budget is an election fantasy budget, traditional procedure has it that most of the agriculture expenditures will be made in the coming year. If cutbacks and new taxes are to happen they will surely come next year in a more harsh “reality” budget. All of this is predicated on the assumption that the present PC government will be returned to office after the coming election. But even if a new government is elected, there won’t be much change. If one examines the Wildrose Party agriculture platform, it looks remarkably similar to the present PC government ag policy — which looks remarkably similar to this year’s agriculture budget. Same old, same old.