Kenney’s First 100 Days

“Susan on the Soapbox” watched in alarm

By Susan Wright

On August 7, 2019, Premier Jason Kenney gave a press conference announcing his government’s progress over its first 100 days—“promises made, promises kept.” There’s no magic in “The First 100 Days.” It’s an arbitrary construct used by the media and political observers to measure how a new political leader is performing. It was first employed with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, to detail the new president’s bold response to an America in economic meltdown.

What’s different about Kenney’s first 100 days assessment (and Donald Trump’s, for that matter) is that Kenney designed his own 100 days report card and filled in the grades himself. Well—he did say he holds the pen, and he’s used it to his advantage here.

Before we evaluate Kenney’s assessment, we need a little context. The UCP campaign slogan was “jobs, economy, pipelines.” Kenney made three overarching promises: to get Albertans back to work, to make life better for all Albertans and to stand up for Alberta. Throughout the campaign he expressed an almost manic sense of urgency (he claimed, for example, to be “obsessed with job creation”) that drove him to kick off the “summer of repeal” right after he was elected. Indeed, the UCP government pumped out legislation and enacted policy faster than Lucille Ball’s chocolates flew down the assembly line.

Kenney’s agenda moved quickly through the Legislature with little justification other than “it was in our policy document, we won, so we have the mandate.” While it’s true the UCP were first past the post, their own stated goal is to make Alberta better for all Albertans. Yet the structure of Kenney’s signature bills ensure the benefits flow to corporations, shareholders, investors, business owners and employers, not Albertans as a whole.

The legislative session kicked off with Bill 1, An Act to Repeal the Carbon Tax. This in itself was not surprising given that “scrapping the tax” was the centerpiece of Kenney’s campaign. It was unsettling, however, to see that his UCP couldn’t muster a single argument in support of Bill 1 and defaulted to attacking the NDP government’s carbon levy with wild-eyed accusations that Notley had foisted the “job-killing carbon tax” on Albertans without their “democratic consent” in “an act of political deception.” Never mind that the tax was rebated to all but the wealthiest Albertans or that thousands of jobs were created using carbon tax revenues.

Kenney apparently also forgot that included in the “all” part of making life better for “all” Albertans are the great many of us who are deeply concerned about climate change. We deserve a fulsome explanation of how the UCP government will support climate change mitigation efforts in the absence of a carbon levy.

A cynic might suggest Bill 1 was nothing but a symbolic gesture given that the federal government’s carbon tax kicked in shortly after Kenney killed Alberta’s tax. (Provincial courts of appeal have confirmed the federal right to impose the tax.) Wouldn’t it have made more sense for Kenney to move ahead on actions that delivered on the promise of “jobs, economy, pipelines” instead of chewing up valuable Legislature time with political posturing?

Bill 2, An Act to Make Alberta Open for Business, is best summarized as a masterclass in Orwellian doublethink, where two plus two equals five. It purports to amend Alberta’s labour legislation “to restore prosperity, get people back to work… restore balance in the relationship between employers and employees, and further support worker rights.” In fact, Bill 2 rolls Alberta’s labour legislation back 30 years with a hodgepodge of amendments that erase changes implemented by the NDP and tip the scales heavily in favour of employers. For example, the youth minimum wage was dropped from $15/hour to $13/hour, eligibility for holiday pay was reduced, overtime rules were changed by eliminating the premium on banked overtime and it’s now more difficult to unionize.

The legislative debate on Bill 2 reflects the stark ideological differences between UCP and NDP governments. Kenney’s focus is to make Alberta “open for business” by enabling higher corporate profits. Notley’s goal was to ensure Alberta workers were fairly compensated and enjoyed the same rights as other workers across Canada.

Bill 2, An Act to Make Alberta Open for Business, purports to “support worker rights” but in fact rolls Alberta’s labour legislation back 30 years.

The difference between these two perspectives was illustrated in a comment by UCP MLA Joseph Schow, who said a small-business owner can’t afford to give up $2,000 in banked overtime. But a low-wage employee can…?

Bill 2 also does nothing to address the fact that the reason Alberta was “closed for business” was not because its pampered workforce needed a nasty jolt of repressive labour reform, but because previous Conservative governments failed to diversify the economy or foresee the inevitable drop in oil prices. Unless Kenney reverses his decision to freeze tax credit programs that benefit entrepreneurs, angel investors and the tech sector, his government will continue to be trapped in the same old thinking and will drive the same old economy into the same old ditch.

Bill 3, the job creation tax cut, is a classic example of the conservative promise “to make (insert name of province/country) open for business” by cutting corporate taxes. Under Kenney, Alberta’s corporate taxes will fall from 12 per cent to 8 per cent over four years. The windfall only applies to businesses making more than $500,000 in profit; the small business tax remains at the 2 per cent level set by the NDP government. As an aside, Alberta already has the lowest overall taxes in Canada. If corporations aren’t interested in moving here now, will going even lower make much difference?

Kenney’s decision reflects his free market party’s undying faith in “trickle-down” economics. Trickle-down economics holds that increasing corporate profits will result in higher investment, more jobs and higher incomes across the economy. The theory fails to address the flaw identified by economists such as Jim Stanford, who show that the link between current profits and future investment has weakened. One need only listen to the ARC Energy Research podcast hosted by Peter Tertzakian and Jackie Forrest in which investors and energy executives attending the 2019 ScotiaBank Conference say they’d invest any extra cash, including from corporate tax cuts, in share buybacks, paying down debt and dividends before they’d invest a penny in growth (or more jobs).

Meanwhile Bill 3 immediately creates a $4.5-billion hole in revenue, which Kenney is accounting for by cutting public services. This will immediately make life worse for many Albertans. Will it be worth it? Finance minister Travis Toews said Alberta should not expect any “noticeable” changes in growing the economy for four to five years. This is consistent with University of Calgary economist Bev Dahlby’s estimate that Bill 3 will generate a $12.7-billion increase in nominal GDP, a 6.5 per cent increase in per capita real GDP, and $1.2-billion in additional government revenue by 2023–24.

The only way Kenney can include Bill 3 in his “promise made, promise kept” list is if he directs the promise solely to corporations and their shareholders, investors and bankers, because the “job creation” part of Bill 3, estimated at 55,000 jobs by U of C economist Jack Mintz, won’t materialize in Alberta for many years, if ever. Meanwhile Alberta may never recover from the cuts to public services.

Bill 4, the Red Tape Reduction Act, was described by NDP MLA Shannon Phillips as “a hood ornament of a bill,” legislation with no practical value that nonetheless satisfies a party’s most fervent supporters. It would be more accurate to characterize Bill 4 as a bill to deregulate through the backdoor that which can’t be deregulated through the front door.

The stated purpose of Bill 4 is to “eliminate dead-weight regulations and unnecessary processes, while at the same time protecting the environment, upholding fiscal accountability, and ensuring the health and safety of all Albertans.” (Shades of Orwell again—protecting the environment… by eliminating environmental protections; ensuring health and safety… by cutting health services and safety laws.)

Workers will lose tens of millions of dollars through the minimum-wage rollback, reduced eligibility for holiday pay and the end of the premium on banked overtime.

With a new cabinet post, the “associate minister of red tape reduction,” Kenney created the power to consolidate red tape reduction efforts into omnibus regulations. If his goals can’t be addressed through policy, the minister can create new red tape (sorry, new regulations) to deal with old red tape. The red tape brigade quickly set up industry panels to provide input to minister Grant Hunter, whose reports will be tabled in the Legislature. His work will be audited by the Auditor General, who will look for evidence of value for money, outcomes, consequences and performance measures—none of which are addressed in Bill 4.

The fundamental problem with Bill 4 is it doesn’t define “red tape,” and no one in the UCP caucus seems to know what it is. Maybe red tape, like beauty and good art, is in the eye of the beholder. (The image of Banksy’s Girl with a Balloon, which shredded itself right after it was sold, comes to mind.) But the lack of a definition is a red flag. If the government doesn’t define red tape, how is it going to fix it, and most importantly how is it going to prevent Bill 4 from “lightening” the regulatory “burden” by stripping away laws designed to protect consumers, workers, health, safety and the environment? What are the safeguards against unintended consequences?

UCP MLA Todd Loewen tried to rebut the NDP’s concern by pulling out his phone and reading into the Hansard record the Wikipedia definition of red tape (“an idiom that refers to excessive regulation or rigid conformity to formal rules that is considered redundant or bureaucratic and hinders or prevents action or decision-making…” etc.). How reassuring that the UCP government’s definition of “red tape” comes from a Wikipedia page last edited (on August 7, 2019) by FrescoBot, an approved bot that makes repetitive edits that would be tedious to do manually…!

NDP MLA Christina Gray suggested that Loewen read further down the page, where he’d read that the Grenfell Tower fire in London, UK, has been directly linked to a reduction of “red tape” that allowed fire inspectors to complete their fire safety inspections in 45 minutes instead of six hours.

Never mind: The red tape brigade hit the ground running. It announced that Alberta drivers will be able to opt for electronic proof of car insurance instead of the old paper copy. Two small snags—insurance companies get to decide whether or not to build an app for that, the cost of which would be passed on to the consumer, and the Insurance Bureau of Canada’s Western Region says this doesn’t really eliminate red tape, it just amends a process.

In August the Ministry of Red Tape Reduction boasted that it had eliminated 17 regulations over a 21-day period. It did not tell us that the government had passed 54 new regulations since it assumed power.

Kenney’s government passed nine additional bills during the summer session. To say that two of them were extremely contentious would be an understatement.

Bill 8 amended how the Education Act addresses gay-straight alliances in schools by giving schools the discretion to notify parents if students join such a club, and allowing schools to delay granting a request to form GSAs and to ban the use of the words “gay” or “queer” in the club name. The combined effect of these changes will be to deter kids from forming or joining GSAs. Alberta earned international atten-tion for Kenney’s repeal of the NDP-era law, including in the Washington Post, in which article Kristopher Wells, a MacEwan University professor and expert on sexual and gender minority youth and health, said “We’d expect to see something like this in Alabama, not Alberta in 2019.”

The bill triggered student-led protests across the province and resulted in the longest debate (40 hours) in the history of the Alberta Legislature. The government argued it was simply balancing students’ privacy rights with parental rights, but its explanation of how existing law protected students’ privacy rights was so muddled that the provincial Privacy Commissioner had to issue an advisory outlining the scope of a student’s privacy rights under Bill 8, and—guess what?—a student’s right to privacy was indeed diminished by Bill 8.

The UCP government presented Bill 9, the Public Sector Wage Arbitration Deferral Act, as something innocuous—the measure simply postponed arbitration talks with public sector unions until the end of October. Small problem: The unions had previously agreed to three-year contracts with two years of salary freezes in exchange for the promise of arbitration talks in year three (i.e., now), and some of these talks were already underway. The unions challenged the constitutionality of Bill 9 in court and the AUPE won an injunction suspending Bill 9. The government appealed the ruling and won. Since then, union members and their supporters have taken to the streets to protest the UCP government’s breach of contract. What little trust that existed between the unions and Kenney has gone up in smoke.

The remaining bills included interim money measures (Bills 5 and 6), which provided hundreds of millions of dollars in cash flow prior to the fall budget (conveniently delayed until after the federal election). They gave no rationale as to why Kenney’s government considered some programs worthy of interim funding but others, such as the Calgary Homeless Foundation (whose budget was cut by $3.2-million) and public libraries (which budget was sliced in half), were not.

Kenney wrapped up his first session with bills that further help the energy sector by allowing municipalities to give property tax exemptions to energy companies (Bill 7) and guaranteeing no major changes to the oil and gas royalty structure for 10 years (Bill 12). He also sped up the professional accreditation process for non-Alberta professionals (Bill 11), restored Albertans’ ability to elect senators (Bill 13), which decisions can be ignored by the federal government, and made technical changes to bring Alberta’s personal income tax structure in line with new federal tax legislation (Bill 10).

His government also brought into force the NDP’s “shut off the taps” bill as a warning to BC not to try any monkey business with the Trans Mountain pipeline.

During his “100 day milestone” announcement Jason Kenney said his government had completed 58 of 375 commitments and that a further 10 were underway.

He had promised to hit the ground running, and by golly he did. Kenney’s substantive bills benefit energy companies and other corporations and harm workers and schoolchildren. They create a $4.5-billion hole in revenue that’s being made up for through cuts to public services. These Kenney justified by appointing a “blue ribbon” panel saddled with a cockeyed mandate to make recommendations to government on balancing its budget without being allowed to consider the revenue side of the equation. Workers will lose tens of millions of dollars through the minimum-wage rollback, reduced eligibility for holiday pay, the elimination of the premium on banked overtime and additional barriers to unionization.

Kenney also assembled a $30-million “war room” to combat bad press (read: dispense partisan propaganda), introduced a $10-million litigation fund for Indigenous groups that support resource development (read: help First Nations fight other First Nations in court), and launched a $2.5-million public inquiry into foreign-funded “Tar Sands” campaigns (but not foreign-funded pro-oil-sands campaigns). All of these moves serve no purpose other than to increase divisiveness and paranoia.

To round things off, Kenney devoted considerable time and effort to purging Alberta’s boards and commissions, replacing previous appointees—some only midway through their terms—with oil and gas executives and UCP donors. He also attacked the federal government at every opportunity, reinforcing some Albertans’ perpetual perception of victimization by the federal Liberals.

If the “first 100 days” benchmark truly started with FDR, it’s instructive to contrast that leader’s early performance with Jason Kenney’s. FDR became president when America was facing an unprecedented economic crisis. He responded by introducing the New Deal, strengthening unions and the social safety net, and increasing regulatory oversight of financial institutions. Kenney became premier of the richest province in Canada, which also has the lowest taxes in Canada. He responded by reciting a narrative of hardship and victimization and ushering in “a period of restraint” that extends corporate welfare, eliminates regulation, cuts public services and hurts all but the wealthiest Albertans.

His sop about “making life better for all Albertans” aside, this is exactly what Kenney said he’d do. Promise made, promise kept.

Susan Wright is an oil and gas lawyer who blogs about Alberta politics asSusan on the Soapbox.”

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