These Parties All Have a Listening Problem
Posted on February 10, 2012 by Richard Einarson
When a provincial budget is finally released for Albertans to look at, the political world quickly fills with partisan thunder both for and against. Albertans aren’t generally interested in the spin however, what they want to know is how the budget will impact their families and the programs and services they require. We hear one side say “this government has a spending problem” and the other say “this government has a revenue problem,” but the Alberta Party tends to believe that these parties all have a listening problem.
Yesterday Alberta’s Finance Minister Ron Liepert delivered the province’s 2012 budget. The budget anticipates a deficit of $886 million for 2012-13, a surplus of $952 million for 2013-14 and a surplus of about $5 billion for 2014-15. The surplus is all predicated on a seemingly unrealistic expectation of up to a forty percent increase in provincial revenues – without a tax or royalty increase.
We agree with the PC’s recent statement that there needs to be an authentic province-wide conversation with Albertans – we were the ones to have proposed it in the first place – but we don’t think this is the government to do it. The PCs are now echoing us in stating that they want to have this authentic conversation.
For years the PCs have shown that they don’t have the ability to listen effectively, or the courage to implement what Albertans say. This has been reflected in their Water for Life strategy, the Inspiring Education report, the Report of the Premier's Council for Economic Strategy and even the most recent round of budget ‘consultations’.
Authentic consultation involves a two-way conversation. Both parties need to be engaged in the discussion. One of the problems that the PCs have is that their budgeting process is designed to be secretive, not consultative. The budgeting process needs to be brought into the 21st century.
Not only does this mean zero-based budgeting to ensure a thorough review of provincial spending is conducted, an idea we are glad to see the current government bring forward, but a complete overhaul of the way budgets are built and planned.
Budgeting Should Extend Beyond Election Cycles
Budgeting should take place on a rolling five-year progression sequence; it should provide stability by extending beyond the election cycle. An election cycle is typically four years. When a government manages its finances over a one, two, or three-year phase, it ends up making too many decisions designed to enhance its own re-election chances. A five-year budget cycle puts Albertans first. The construction of the budget should be an open and consultative process extending over several months, giving citizens a real chance to contribute and to understand the final result.
The Alberta Party would build a budget in collaboration with Albertans. And no, a two-week cabinet tour of Alberta weeks before the budget is released does not count. We will find a meaningful way to include people in setting priorities and planning the budget on an ongoing basis, so that the budget reflects their values. We’d start saving some money again. Long-term planning is generational, and so are two of its key components – saving and investing for the future. Alberta’s resource revenues are our inheritance, and we think it’s time we stopped spending it all.
A Savings Approach Combined with Long Term Planning
A savings approach that we would support would be roughly one-third into savings, one-third into long term capital investments and program investments, and only one-third spent on the province’s day-to-day expenses. Over time, the income produced by our growing savings will begin to replace the need to spend that last third, and we’ll be able to save and invest it all.
Alberta is a world energy leader, and the Alberta Party is committed to ensuring a stable regulatory and royalty environment, while insisting on best practices and a close attention to environmental stewardship. Proper long-term planning and budgeting is important for this – it provides stability and confidence to businesses as well as government programs and citizens.
As crucial as energy is to Alberta, diversifying our economy is important to smooth out the cycle of boom and bust, and to build the next breakthrough industry. One of the most important ways to achieve this diversity is to foster a culture of entrepreneurship, and to support such a culture the Alberta Party is committed to provide 0% small business tax rate for all new business start ups for their first 3 years. Discussions on this type of initiative would be possible if the budget process is opened up.
Planning for the long term also means looking at Alberta’s largest expense – health care. Through careful planning based on preventative care and zero-based budgeting, the Alberta Party believes we can deliver better care to Albertans at a lower price.
We will work to ensure that everyone has a family doctor and is able to easily access a primary care network. Prevention is cheaper than treatment, and we need to shift the culture of our health care thinking from reactive to proactive.
Easy access to professional care and advice is essential. The Alberta Party will invest in expanding access to high-quality home care and continuing care. In addition to helping people maintain a better quality of life, this can help reduce the pressures on our hospitals where acute care beds can cost up to $3,000 per patient per day.
Education can benefit from the same kind of emphasis on local control. The Alberta Party is committed to de-centralizing decision-making with regard to the construction, operation and disposition of school facilities. Neither Calgary nor Camrose need help from Edmonton in understanding their children’s needs.
The Alberta Party supports many of the findings contained in the two-year consultative process that culminated in the Inspiring Education report, we encourage the government to adopt and act on it.
Ultimately, much of this comes down to empowering Albertans and their communities. The key thing is that communities are able to effectively deliver the services and infrastructure Albertans expect. The Alberta Party is committed to bringing the best possible results to Albertans for the lowest possible cost. This means having a long-term vision of where we need to be and how we need to get there.
Given that we’re looking at an election budget, we feel there is a lot to be desired. Albertans weren’t consulted, the budget is short sighted, and the PC government has proven that they can’t effectively listen to Albertans, nor have they shown the courage to act on what they’ve heard.
Albertans are smart. They want a seat at the table. They want a voice in where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. Right now, Albertans know we’re not living up to the potential of our province.