No, Alberta didn't lose $4B in COVID relief. But the NDP said so anyway

Rachel Notley has called for an inquiry into where 2020 pandemic spending went. I easily found the answer in public documents.

We should expect better than misinformation from our provincial opposition and our government

Alberta NDP Leader Rachel Notley makes a policy announcement in 2021. A former premier and her team ought to know better than to exaggerate what the auditor general said about COVID spending, Kyle Olsen writes. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

This column is an opinion by Kyle Olsen, a public affairs consultant and former legislature researcher. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Here are some recent tweets:

"Former UCP Finance Minister Travis Toews lost track of billions of dollars" — NDP leader Rachel Notley.

"Where is the $4 billion, Travis?" — NDP MLA (and former finance minister) Joe Ceci, NDP MLA.

"Alberta, we will find your four billion dollars" — NDP finance critic Shannon Phillips.

"How do you lose $4B" — NDP candidate Sarah Elmeligi.

Listening to the NDP's spin on the latest auditor general's report on Alberta COVID relief spending, it would be easy for Albertans to be left with the impression that the United Conservative government dumped $4 billion in the proverbial money hole.

We are all worse off when our public discourse descends into misinformation, and we should expect more from our Official Opposition, just as we should expect more from our government.

The NDP has a tendency to turn the rhetoric up to 11, and it leaves me wondering whether their strategy has resulted in trying to hit home runs poorly, when they should be focusing on getting on base with singles and doubles first. 

Contrary to the NDP's gross simplification, Auditor General Doug Wylie did not report money lost, nor needing to be found. His report criticized the government's general lack of reporting on the effectiveness of COVID-19 related spending in the first year of the pandemic. 

But the NDP announced they'd launch an investigation into "lost" funds anyway.

The Kenney government, known for its aggressive engagement style on social media, didn't fight back much. They're in a transition period, with much staff turnover and people leaving for UCP leadership campaigns.

On social media, this information vacuum led to baseless accusations of 'stealing' and misappropriation to friends of the government.

So where did the money go? The answer lies in public records, easily found with a bit of knowledge of government systems and search engines.

A June report by Alberta Auditor General Doug Wylie expressed concern the provincial government didn't adequately report the results and outcomes of some of its $4-billion expenditures on COVID relief in 2020. That's doesn't quite mean $4 billion went missing. (CBC)

All Alberta government grants, their amounts, which programs they came from and the recipient are listed on a government website, known as the grant payments disclosure table. The information in the table is vast: as of this writing, there are 1,349,457 entries beginning in 2014. The government also discloses its sole-source contracts and the details of selected payments from the General Revenue Fund (many other supplies and services). 

Using only the grant payment database, I "found" $3.62 billion of the "missing" $4 billion without much trouble. Given the cost of public inquiries, I wonder if the NDP will prorate me the three-quarters of the cost for the less than the hour of work this took.

What I found was pretty boring. The biggest portion, $1.8 billion, were COVID-19 costs incurred directly by the health department and Alberta Health Services. Another $580 million went to transfers from Municipal Affairs to municipalities ranging from a pair of payments totalling $203 million to the City of Calgary to transfers of $6,013 to the Summer Village of Point Alison (on the northern shore of Wabamun Lake — I had to look it up!)

Businesses received $451.7 million (and they're all listed by name, including 115 different pizza restaurants) under the Small and Medium Enterprise Relaunch Grant program. Schools account for $303 million, and the details go on as you can see in the chart below. 

Kyle Olsen used government grant records to account for more than $4 billion spent on COVID response by the Alberta government in 2020. That's the same amount flagged by the auditor general as being poorly tracked. (Kyle Olsen)

Other items not in that grant disclosure, including road projects and child care, were noted by the auditor general.

Adding up the publicly available information noted above gets us $4.366 billion in spending and grants related to COVID-19 and related stimulus and business support measures by the province in 2020-21.

The money was not "lost," and I have not "found" it. 

The way the NDP characterized Wylie's report leaves Albertans less informed and undermines public trust in the very government that the NDP aspires to lead again, and the programs its MLAs wanted to be larger in the first place. 

I'd note that more recently the NDP has toned down its language, but that is little consolation when the audience is undoubtedly a fraction of the size that received the original message. 

What we don't know, as the auditor reported, is how many businesses were saved, classrooms renovated, highways paved and a modelling of lives saved.

But in the end, we know where this money came from and where it went, and in general we know what it was spent on.

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Kyle Olsen

Freelance contributor

Kyle Olsen is a partner at Olsen+Biggs, a public affairs firm. He holds a masters in public financial management from the University of London and has analyzed at least 30 federal, provincial and city budgets for clients over the past 15 years. He worked for the Progressive Conservative caucus as director of research from 2012 to 2014.