Calgary·Opinion

Why Rachel Notley's budget should raise taxes, spend political capital and play it cool

Compromising with those who will never support the government is a good way to lose the support of those who do, Corey Hogan writes in budget advice for Premier Rachel Notley.

'No matter what you decide to do, you’re going to take a political hit with somebody'

Political analyst Corey Hogan says Premier Rachel Notley, above, needs to take some brave steps in Thursday's budget. (CBC)

Dear Rachel Notley,

Has it been a year already? It seems like just yesterday people were ignoring the fact that 10 polls in a row showed you poised to become the next premier.

The other day Dave Barrett, the first NDP premier of British Columbia, came up and I thought of you and your coming budget — why you should raise taxes, spend political capital and play it cool.

Mr. Barrett famously declared at his first cabinet meeting that they were a government that was there for a "good time, not a long time."

True to his word, he did a lot of things and was gone in three years.

Think of Dave Barrett as the counterpoint to your average Alberta government.

Rachel Notley, surrounded by supporters, arrives for the leaders debate in Edmonton last spring. (Jason Franson/Canadian Press)

Remember to stay NDP

The shortest reign any governing party has ever been given in this province is a mere 14 years, with the average being closer to 30.

Alberta governments have tended to do very little and last forever.

So what will the budget tell us about you and your government? Is your current government here for a good time? Or a long time? Is the Alberta NDP more Alberta, or more NDP?

On the heels of the disastrous NDP national convention I'm sure there's a strong pressure to highlight the Alberta-ness of your government and sweep the NDP-ness under the rug.

But let me make the case — that you need to be an NDP premier now more than ever, and your government's survival depends on it.

First, the obvious: you're in a tight spot.

One in five downtown Calgary offices is empty.

We've been dealing with $40 oil and we're staring down a $10 billion deficit. Unemployment has skyrocketed.

And even if oil rebounds, it's not like we were balancing the books at $100 a barrel  — this is Alberta's eighth deficit in nine years. To get out of this mess, some unpopular decisions will need to be made.

No matter what you decide to do, you're going to take a political hit with somebody. Credibility will be lost, capital will be spent.

Calgary's downtown can feel empty at times as the economy tightens. (Drew Anderson/CBC)

Tax hikes are needed 

Now, I'm not under the impression budgets are written the night before they are presented.

But here's some advice that I hope somebody has given you in the past weeks and months as you've put together what could well be the defining document of your government — it's better to deal with a tough reality today than a tough reality tomorrow.

Our taxes are so low they don't even pay for health care and education- Corey Hogan

Hey, we've all done it. We've all put off an uncomfortable conversation or not opened that bank statement for a couple of days.

But that was the modus operandi of the last government, and we kicked them out when the yellow PAST DUE envelopes started piling up.

Your upper income tax hike was a good start, but you and I both know it's only the minimum payment on that grand old PC legacy — Alberta's structural deficit.

Our taxes are so low they don't even pay for health care and education, let alone the rest of government. And it's not like there's no way out of this mess. If we moved to the tax rates of the next lowest-taxed province we wouldn't have a deficit at all.

If you're going to raise taxes, let's get it over with  — and better one big tax hike than three small ones. We'll be further ahead as a province and you'll have three years for us to get over it and thank you for your foresight.

Now, not 2018,  is the time to do what's necessary but not necessarily popular.

Spend political capital

There's another reason to act now: even if you govern for the next 20 years, you'll probably never have a stronger hand.

Political capital can only be earned or spent.

There's no way to stash it. It's like putting money under your mattress in 1920s Germany — you're going to wake up and find out it's worth less than it was the day before.

But just because you need to spend your political capital doesn't mean you should waste it.

The amount you would need to win right-wing Alberta is well beyond your bank balance. Trading the goodwill of the people who voted for you in the hopes that it leads to the goodwill of people who will never like you is a sucker's bet.  

Alison Redford never won over the right wing of her party, no matter how much she betrayed the left. Tom Mulcair couldn't win over the left of the NDP even by promising he'd support the Leap Manifesto if it passed.

Compromising with those who will never support you is a good way to lose the support of those who do.

Pick a side. Making the person who's angry with you angrier is better than alienating your supporter.

Jim Prentice and Rachel Notley during a pivotal debate in the 2015 election. (CBC)

Don't overreact

Let's take a moment to remember that Jim Prentice could still be premier right now. He called the election more than a year before the fixed election date, a date that has still not passed.

Dave Barrett made the same mistake in 1975.

No matter what happens with your budget  — whether received to rave reviews or pans of the critics — don't overreact and don't let the moment overwhelm.

The initial reaction is rarely the final summation.

And here's one final piece of advice: it is possible to be here for a good time AND a long time, but governments that can't decide their priorities are usually here for neither.

You were elected to change this province.

That's going to ruffle some feathers and you shouldn't be afraid to do so.

Show them what you're made of.


Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.

About the Author

Corey Hogan

Political Analyst

Political analyst Corey Hogan is a former executive director of the Alberta Liberal Party and currently the Chief Strategy Officer at Northweather.

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