It’s accepted wisdom that if construction on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline expansion doesn’t begin before the next election in Alberta, Premier Rachel Notley is toast. But there’s another matter equally threatening to her electoral chances: debt.
Alberta has racked up tens of billions of dollars in debt coping with the fallout from the great oil price crash of a few years ago. This was, in part, an ideological decision by Ms. Notley’s government: Rather than slash jobs and radically cut back on services, as her political adversaries suggested, the New Democrats decided to maintain public sector employment levels and stimulate the province’s battered economy with infrastructure investment using borrowed funds.
It was a plan sanctioned by no less than former Bank of Canada governor David Dodge.
But that was then – and this is now. Albertans are increasingly uneasy about the mountainous levels of red ink the government has spilled in a relatively short period. This is why Ms. Notley has to do something important in her government’s budget on Thursday: detail a path back to balance.
Alberta’s economy is singing along quite nicely at the moment. It led the country in growth in 2017 and will come close to doing it again in 2018 – all this with oil prices still in the $50-$60 price range for Western Canadian Select. That, of course, is a far cry from the halcyon days of the mid-2000s, when a barrel of crude fetched twice that. Still, the province added almost 90,000 jobs over the past year. The economy is practically where it was right before the crash.
Many think this is an opportune time to zero in on the debt issue.
When the NDP took over in 2015, Alberta’s debt totalled $11.9-billion. It currently sits at $45-billion and is forecast to hit $71-billion by 2019-20. As a percentage of the total economy, the current debt level isn’t outrageous – 13.8 per cent of GDP, the lowest in the country. The government has said it hopes to balance the books in 2023-24. But that remains an aspirational goal.
“What has concerned the credit rating agencies and led to the credit downgrades is the fact there is no detailed map to return to balance,” University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe told me. “I think that is what people are hoping to see finally: a real plan to get the finances, the books, back in balance.”
So will we see such a blueprint? I’m not confident. Early on in its mandate, the NDP polled the public, asking people if they would like the government to cut jobs and services in an effort to speed up the pace of defeating the deficit. The public, apparently, answered no. You would expect it to.
But that same public often speaks out of both sides of its mouth.
United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney has been hitting the debt issue hard and for a reason: It’s resonating. There are enough people in the province who remember former premier Ralph Klein and the day in 2004 that he declared the province debt-free. It was a moment of immense pride for Albertans. Even if the level of debt is still low compared with the rest of the country, people here don’t like it. It’s almost an embarrassment. The only thing worse would be having a sales tax. But that’s a conversation people here aren’t prepared to broach. Alberta could get rid of its deficit tomorrow if it had even a modest sales tax. But no.
So that discussion will be kicked down the road until the next crisis arrives.
As will any notion of removing oil and gas royalties from the province’s annual revenue stream. As Mr. Tombe and other economists have pointed out, that money is derived from the sale of an asset. When you or I sell personal stock, we don’t count that money as household income, per se, because it’s not.
It’s the same with royalties. The way for Alberta to tame the boom-and-bust nature of its economy is to remove the major cause of that phenomenon. Put that money in a sovereign wealth fund where it collects interest. A government could then use any interest derived from that investment in the annual budget.
There are ways Alberta could have a much more stable financial outlook, year to year, if it wanted to. But that’s a dialogue no government here is willing to instigate. Not in a million years.