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OPINION | Need a rubber stamp? Some political cover? There's a panel for that

Alberta has a long history of governments promising to consult Albertans and then either gaming the system or listening only to the voices they wanted to hear.

So far, UCP panels have conveniently given government the answers it was looking for

Preston Manning listens as people make statements to Alberta's 'fair deal' panel during a town hall in Edmonton in December. The panel seems designed to inflame resentment at the rest of Canada and especially at the federal Liberal government. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

This column is opinion from Graham Thomson, a political columnist based in Edmonton.

(CBC)

For anyone who thinks Alberta's current UCP government has nothing in common with the previous NDP government, or that the NDP government had nothing in common with past Conservative governments, I present to you The Annual Bogus Budget Consultation.

It's that time of year when the government goes through the motions of asking people what they want to see in the upcoming provincial budget even though the budget is pretty much already on its way to the printers.

They all do it, governments of all stripes.

Last week, the United Conservative government issued a news release under the heading "Albertans are invited to share their opinions and suggestions for the upcoming budget." Albertans were told they can share their thoughts on a dedicated online page, or take part in telephone town halls with Finance Minister Travis Toews on Jan. 27 and 28.

If this sounds familiar, it's because one year ago the NDP government announced a pre-budget consultation to "give people the opportunity to ask questions and provide their views on the provincial budget." People could go online or take part in two telephone town halls with then-finance minister Joe Ceci.

Forgive my skepticism

Forgive my skepticism, but it seems these budget consultations always end up with the government of the day jubilantly claiming that Albertans support the government's policies and budget plans.

Even though the New Democrats didn't present a budget last year in advance of the election, they did discover that Albertans supported massive investments in infrastructure to boost employment, borrowing billions of dollars while interest rates were low, and using a carbon tax to green the economy.

Don't be surprised if the UCP's budget consultations this year discover that Albertans now support less government spending, more private delivery of public health care, and a "fair deal" for Alberta in Confederation.

Ah, consultations.

Janice MacKinnon, right, chair of the blue ribbon panel on Alberta’s finances, and Travis Toews, minister of Finance, speak to the media in September 2019. The panel conveniently gave the government the answer it was looking for. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Albertans have probably never heard the word spoken as often from a government. That's because the UCP is all about consultations.

It has either held consultations, is currently holding consultations or is promising consultations, on a long list of topics including: free-speech on university campuses; auto insurance rates; compensation and safety for paid farm workers; electricity markets; supervised drug consumption sites; Alberta Health Services; a "fair deal" for Alberta; and balancing the provincial budget.

So far, it seems the consultations have conveniently given the government the answer it was looking for.

The most obvious example is the MacKinnon blue ribbon panel that consulted with selected Albertans behind closed doors last year and came up with solutions to fiscal problems that involved cutting government spending — suggestions that dovetailed nicely with UCP policies.

The government's "consultations" with universities over free speech was less a two-way dialogue and more the minister responsible directing campuses to adopt the "Chicago Principles" that, according to critics, reduces a university's ability to censor speakers spewing hate.

Albertans should be skeptical of the government's consultations on supervised injection sites given what Premier Jason Kenney said in 2018 while in opposition: "Helping addicts inject poison into their bodies is not a solution to the problem of addiction."

Associate minister of Mental Health and Addictions Jason Luan announcing who will sit on an eight-member panel that will examine the socio-economic impact of supervised consumption sites. Given Kenney's comments in the past, Albertans should be skeptical of the government’s consultations on safe injection sites. (CBC)

This is a government seemingly with its mind made up on issues now under "consultation."

We also have the government's "fair deal" panel that is travelling the province "consulting Albertans on strategies to secure a fair deal in the Canadian federation and advance our vital economic interests." Kenney says the process is also a safety valve to allow Albertans to let off steam.

However, the process is arguably less about consultation and more about reaffirming a favourite UCP narrative that Alberta's problems are caused by outsiders. It seems designed to inflame resentment at the rest of Canada and especially at the federal Liberal government.

Rich history of sham consultations

Government consultations usually come in two forms: the symbolic and the chaotic.

The symbolic is when the government's mind is made up but it wants to give the semblance of democracy. Example: the annual budget consultation.

The chaotic is when the government has a chronically difficult issue with no easy solution and it wants to drive that point home to the public. Example: health care.

Alberta governments in the past held a merry-go-round on health-care reform that featured a health-care summit in 1994 and another in 1999 followed by an international symposium on health care in 2005. When it came to a major restructuring of the health-care system, they all led nowhere.

Listening only to voices they want to hear

Over the decades, governments launched inconclusive initiatives seeking the opinions of Albertans under such titles as: It's Your Future; It's Your Money; Imagine Our Tomorrow; and Looking Forward. None came up with solutions. Or, more accurately, none came up with solutions that fit the government's pre-existing narrative.

Perhaps the most successful attempt to find fiscal solutions for this province was conducted a decade ago by a blue-ribbon Premier's Council for Economy Strategy that offered a thoughtful report in 2011 called Shaping Alberta's Future. That document recommended the province start investing energy revenue into a fund to support economic diversification. It also suggested, amazingly enough, a sales tax.

The advice was ignored.

Finance Minister Travis Toews with the auto insurance review panel behind him. Alberta has a long history of governments promising to consult Albertans and then either gaming the system or listening only to the voices they wanted to hear. (David Bajer/CBC)

One promising fact this time around is that the UCP's online pre-budget consultation is not a biased survey with loaded questions, but consists instead of three open-ended questions: "What spending priorities do you think government should focus on? Where do you think government could find savings? How should government support job creation and economic growth?"

But then again, this is a government that, when setting up the MacKinnon panel last year to find a cure to the province's fiscal ills, provided the panel members not with a holistic first-aid kit but a scalpel.

Alberta has a long history of governments promising to consult Albertans and then either gaming the system or listening only to the voices they wanted to hear.

The UCP has yet to prove itself different.


This column is an opinion. For more information about our commentary section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Thomson is an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years, much of it as an outspoken columnist for the Edmonton Journal. Nowadays you can find his thoughts and analysis on provincial politics Fridays at cbc.ca/edmonton, on CBC Edmonton Television News, during Radio Active on CBC Radio One (93.9FM/740AM) and on Twitter at @gthomsonink.

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