Calgary

Kenney said NDP 'lied' about Alberta's finances. New numbers suggest otherwise

Premier Jason Kenney accused the previous NDP government of lying to Albertans about the province's finances but, after new numbers put out by his own government painted a different picture, Kenney is facing similar accusations, himself.

Premier stands by claim despite year-end report that paints different picture

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney speaking during Question Period at the legislature in Edmonton. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

Less than a month ago, Premier Jason Kenney accused the previous NDP government of lying to Albertans about the state of the province's finances.

Now, new numbers put out by his own government paint a different picture, and Kenney is facing similar accusations, himself.

The issue centres around public comments Kenney made in interviews with Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell.

First, in late April — after he was elected but before he was sworn in as premier — Kenney was quoted by Bell as saying that "the fiscal situation is worse than the NDP let on."

Then, in early June — when, as premier, he would have had access to the province's detailed financial information — he again spoke to Bell, and this time made more specific allegations against the previous government.

In a column published on June 7, Kenney was quoted as saying the NDP "lied to Albertans" about the state of the province's finances.

Calgary Sun columnist Rick Bell's June 7 column that quotes Premier Jason Kenney about the state of the province's finances. (Calgarysun.com/Screenshot)

"From what I've seen, the NDP massively overstated revenues. They were dishonest with Albertans and they fudged the numbers," the premier said in Bell's column.

"I would say we're at least a billion deeper in the hole, possibly more," Kenney added.

Three weeks later, Kenney's own government released new numbers that seem to contradict those claims.

Revenues actually up, deficit down

In its year-end financial report, released June 28 — the Friday before the Canada Day long weekend — the province portrays a different image of the state of its finances.

That document shows expenses for the year were actually down by about $300 million, compared with the third-quarter fiscal update put out by the previous NDP government in February. And there was virtually no change in revenues.

The final numbers add up to a deficit that rings in roughly $2 billion lower than what the NDP estimated when it released its 2018/19 budget last year.

Through a spokesperson, the premier said Tuesday he stands by his previous comments, which may have been misunderstood.

Kenney's press secretary Christine Myatt said the premier sees no contradiction between what he told Bell and the numbers his government put out on Friday.

"In his comments [to Bell], the premier was clearly referring to the NDP's future projections and so-called 'path to balance,' not to the fiscal year that just ended," she said in an email.

"Those projections did massively overstate revenues, which will inevitably add to overall debt levels if no action is taken to control spending and restore investor confidence. We maintain that the NDP misled Albertans about the province's finances and the dire situation they left behind."

2 possibilities

But some political observers aren't buying that explanation.

Given what the premier said in April and then again in June about the NDP cooking the books, Mount Royal University political scientist Duane Bratt says he sees only two possibilities.

"He either didn't know — and then doubles down, even though he could have realized those numbers — or he did know the answer and is basically bullshitting Albertans," Bratt said.

"I'm not sure what's the worst answer there."

Duane Bratt is a political science professor at Mount Royal University. (Bryan Labby/CBC )

He also didn't find Myatt's explanation credible.

"Nice cover," he said. "But that was not the impression of the two Bell columns."

CBC News asked Myatt for clarification on which projections, specifically, Kenney was referring to, if it wasn't the year-end financials, and if Kenney believed the Bell columns accurately represented what he had said.

She replied with an emailed statement that didn't answer those questions.

"Over the NDP's term, there was zero growth to Alberta's revenues, but they managed to grow expenses by $8 billion," Myatt wrote in response.

"For example, investment income was $500 million below projections for the last quarter of the fiscal year and there were a number of unfunded NDP spending announcements made on the eve of an election. This is why we have established the MacKinnon panel to get to the bottom of this fiscal mess and advise on a responsible path forward."

Calls for Kenney to apologize

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips said it certainly appeared to her that the premier was misrepresenting the province's financial situation in his comments to the Calgary Sun.

"Clearly, Jason Kenney was lying," she told reporters at a news conference Tuesday.

She also said the premier's comments undermine the credibility of non-partisan staff in Alberta's finance department who prepare the budget numbers and quarterly fiscal updates.

"Those statements were not true when he made those available to a columnist," she said.

"And really, what they were was mischaracterizing the work of the public service, and that is regrettable, and he should apologize to them for it."

NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

Bratt said the way the government rolled out the report on Friday also "looks really bad."

The official news release about the year-end financial report was one of nine releases the government sent out that day, and Bratt noted it didn't mention anything about the increased revenues or reduced deficit.

That information was buried in complex financial documents elsewhere on the government website.

"If you only read the press release — as many did — they didn't get to that," Bratt said.

Finance minister confident in numbers

Finance Minister Travis Toews was asked Tuesday whether he had confidence in the numbers his ministry put out on Friday, given the confusion between those figures and the premier's claims of a few weeks earlier.

"I certainly have confidence in the numbers," he told reporters. "The financial statements have been reviewed by the auditor general. I have no issue with the numbers there."

Alberta Finance Minister Travis Toews. (Legislative Assembly of Alberta)

Toews didn't directly answer another question about the seemingly contradictory information coming from the premier and finance ministry. Instead he pointed to the "long-term trajectory" of the previous government's fiscal policies.

"The numbers in that annual report, I think, really demonstrate the need for a very significant change in how the budgets are balanced and the fiscal direction of the government," he said.

"The NDP put us on an unsustainable trajectory."

Former premier and current opposition leader Rachel Notley said the year-end financial report shows her government, which was in power for the entire 2018/19 fiscal year, "overperformed in terms of our projections."

"Mr. Kenney ran around claiming that we were lying about the numbers," she told reporters.

"What this shows is that, no, we were absolutely truthful about the numbers. We had set out a clear and deliberate and careful path to balance, and we were meeting our targets."

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