Edmonton·Opinion

Alberta's budget is bizarrely a win-win for both Kenney and Notley

Thursday’s budget good news won’t be enough on its own to turn the heads of Premier Jason Kenney’s most ardent detractors, but they will help him sell a narrative that Alberta is turning a corner with nation-leading economic recovery, higher employment, more investment and, of course, a surplus budget.

The thought of a balanced budget a year ago would have been unthinkable, writes Graham Thomson

Thursday’s budget good news won’t be enough on its own to turn the heads of Premier Jason Kenney’s most ardent detractors, but they will help him sell a narrative that Alberta is turning a corner with nation-leading economic recovery, among other things, writes Graham Thomson. (David Bajer/CBC)

This column is an opinion from Graham Thomson, an award-winning journalist who has covered Alberta politics for more than 30 years. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

It seems fitting in so many ways that the official title of Alberta's new provincial budget is "Moving Forward."

This is a budget focused on a bright smooth road ahead, not the potholed recession-ridden dirt path we clanked along the past two years.

For the Alberta government, this is a post-pandemic budget. For Premier Jason Kenney, it is a pre-leadership-vote budget. For The United Conservative Party, it's a pre-pre-election budget.

This is not a pre-election budget, by the way, because the next election is scheduled for May 29, 2023 and by law, the government is required to bring in a budget annually by the end of February. 

So, there will be an actual pre-election budget a year from now — and at that time we'll see just how well this year's budget forecasts pan out.

Arguably, the biggest forecast in the budget is a surplus of $500 million. That's a huge amount of money if you were to find it under your mattress but for a government with a $63-billion budget, it's a drop in the bucket.

But it is a very powerful droplet, symbolically. No Alberta government has posted a budget surplus since 2014. 

Even the thought of a balanced budget a year ago would have been unthinkable as a COVID-fuelled recession gripped the province.

But we have a fascination in Alberta with budget deficit/surpluses that goes back to the days of Ralph Klein, who not only balanced the budget but eventually paid off the provincial debt. 

Every premier has been measured against Klein's success ever since, even though by balancing the fiscal budget Klein left the province with a huge infrastructure deficit. But that's a topic for a column I wrote 10 years ago.

Of course, Klein's success was thanks to huge windfalls from energy prices — and that is arguably exactly what happened for Kenney in this budget.

Listen to a special Budget 2022 episode of The Loop: 
The Alberta government is predicting a balanced budget thanks to surging oil and gas prices. This week on The Loop, Rod Kurtz takes a look at how the province plans to spend your money. He's joined by political columnist Graham Thomson and Taleesha Thorogood, senior business advisor at Fasken Martineau DuMoulin and a former Conservative staffer.

A year ago, Alberta thought its resource revenue wouldn't even top $3 billion. Heck, oil prices had dropped so low that the government expected to make more money from cash-strapped university and college students paying tuition than it would get from the oilsands.

But oil prices hit a trampoline.

This year, revenue from the oilsands and other resources is forecast to bring in $14 billion. This is the major reason why Alberta is on track for a balanced budget this year.

That kind of talk drives Finance Minister Travis Toews a little batty.

"There's a tendency for many to look at this budget as simply a resurgence in energy prices. It is much more than that," said Toews during an interview after his budget address as he referenced increased investment and successful efforts to diversify the economy.

But whatever the reason, being able to point to a budget surplus will help Kenney at a time when he needs help most. He's headed into a leadership review on April 9 in Red Deer where members of the United Conservative Party will vote to keep him or toss him.

The prospect of losing that vote has rattled Kenney to the point he has given his chief of staff, Pam Livingston, a leave of absence to head up a team to make sure he survives the vote.

Thursday's budget good news won't be enough on its own to turn the heads of Kenney's most ardent detractors, but they will help him sell a narrative that Alberta is turning a corner with nation-leading economic recovery, higher employment, more investment and, of course, a surplus budget.

On the other hand, the NDP is happily painting the budget as proof the government is balancing the budget on the backs of working Albertans, arguing that even if there is a surplus at the end of the year, most Albertans will be no further ahead.

NDP Leader Rachel Notley says Kenney's promise to help Albertans deal with high natural gas prices, for example, won't do anything for this winter's eye-watering gas bills and the rebate program next winter won't kick in until the price of natural gas hits $6.50 per gigajoule.

Keep in mind that even if the program was in place this winter it wouldn't help you because the price never came close to that threshold.

It might not help anyone next year, either.

In a weird way, the new provincial budget is a win-win for both Kenney and Notley. 

It helps Kenney appeal to his fiscal conservative base and helps Notley appeal to her the-Kenney-government-is-not-helping-working-Albertans base.

As for the pandemic, the budget is betting heavily on COVID-19 receding in the rear-view mirror as the province is "moving forward." 

In fact, the budget documents have an entire chapter titled "Looking Beyond COVID-19."

But as we've witnessed the past two years, COVID-19 has a tendency to upset the best laid plans of mice and finance ministers.

That's partly why Toews sounded restrained in his optimism for the future.

Then there's the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

During my chat with him Thursday, Toews said while he's understandably pleased to introduce a balanced budget, "what's going on in Ukraine is tragic" and has dampened any celebratory feelings in Alberta about a balanced budget and optimistic future.

Toews's reflections on the disaster befalling Ukraine were more appropriate and compassionate than the tweet from Kenney where he said the democratic world must stand with Ukraine, and then added a not-too-subtle plug for Alberta energy product: "That [unity] should begin with a hard global embargo of all Russian oil & gas exports."

Kenney's comment had disturbing echoes of the late Premier Don Getty's tone-deaf moment in 1986 when he said the Chernobyl nuclear plant explosion (coincidentally also in Ukraine) that endangered Europe's breadbasket region would be great for the sale of Alberta wheat.

Kenney at times can't seem to help tripping over his own rhetoric.

But on Thursday, Toews had the spotlight and presented a vision of Alberta that is more optimistic than anything we've seen the past two years.

It might yet prove to be a mirage but for Kenney it is a political lifeline that he will be gripping on to from now until the leadership vote April 9.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham Thomson

Freelance contributor

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.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now