Of the many tactics that Jason Kenney used to win the leadership of the United Conservative Party, perhaps the most effective was the anger he stoked among his base over Alberta's perceived lot in life.
The narrative went something like this: the province is a shell of its former self; the NDP has ruined everything; the rest of the country is against us but we won't be on our knees much longer. Mr. Kenney will Make Alberta Great Again.
While it may make for a compelling, applause-inducing campaign storyline, it bears little resemblance to reality. The truth is, there are many provinces in this country that would love to have Alberta's so-called problems. They would love to be leading the country in economic growth. They would kill to have the highest GDP per capita in the land. Major cities would be thrilled if their economy was surging the way Calgary's is at 4.6 per cent, with employment, housing starts and retail sales all making remarkable gains.
This idea of Alberta as this poor, woe begotten, economic basket-case is a myth, one that opposition politicians here like to trade on. But it's a fairy tale.
There is no denying the bottom-line numbers we see in provincial budgets: A $10-billion deficit in the past provincial budget; a $10-billion deficit in the one before that. Unquestionably, a problem created by the giant hole in provincial royalty revenues created by the harsh drop in oil prices.
Still, at the same time, you have to ask yourself what is going on. In the 2015-16 budget, for instance, expenditures were $48.9-billion; in the latest budget they are $54.9-billion. In a relatively short period of time, the NDP government has added billions in spending while the province is climbing out of an oil recession. Spending is growing at a rate that exceeds population growth, plus inflation, which isn't sustainable if you aren't selling crude at $100 (U.S.) a barrel.
Now let's take a look at what's going on next to Alberta, in British Columbia, a province roughly the same size, population-wise. In its past budget, it forecast revenues of $52.4-billion (Canadian) and expenditures of $51.9-billion, for a small surplus. And B.C. does this without the help of the oil patch.
What is the biggest difference between the two? One word: taxes.
Alberta has no sales tax, B.C. has a 7-per-cent sales tax. B.C.'s corporate tax rate is higher than Alberta's too. And there are other forms of fees and levies B.C. has that Alberta doesn't. There isn't a province in the country whose tax rate is anywhere near as low as Alberta's. It is something former premier Ralph Klein called the Alberta Advantage. And believe it or not, Jason Kenney was talking throughout the campaign about bringing it back – like it's something that's been lost.
Think about this: if Alberta introduced B.C.'s level of taxation – which is the second lowest in the country – it would bring in $8.7-billion in revenue. That pretty much takes care of the province's deficit right there, without having to make any adjustments to expenditures – which Alberta politicians throughout the years have shown a reluctance to do.
Even bringing in a modest 5-per-cent sales tax would be worth, by most estimates, around $5-billion – which would make serious inroads into their fiscal problems.
But that is considered heresy in Alberta. So instead, politicians and others here moan and whine about how horrible things are, how awful the province is being treated by Ottawa and other jurisdictions, all of which is only adding to the province's woes.
It's a joke.
The fact is Alberta politicians have created much of the mess the province is in – not oil prices, not Quebec, not Ottawa, not B.C. For years, they relied on oil revenues to keep taxes low and spending high – the highest per capita spending in the country. The province spent like the good times would never end, with no plan for the day the music stopped or at least slowed down.
"Alberta's deficit is a choice and not due to broad economic factors," University of Calgary economist Trevor Tombe told me this week. "We could have a balanced budget tomorrow and still have the lowest taxes in the country."
But that would be hard. That would take guts. It's much easier to complain about how mean everyone is being to them instead. Soon, however, that ploy will only engender deep, wide-scale resentment, and Alberta could feel more alone than ever.