Chris Pecora

Whipsaw Change

Reversals will hurt Albertans.

By Graham Thomson

If you think at times you’ve got a tough job, just be glad you’re not a member of Alberta’s civil service. These poor souls don’t know if they’re coming or going. They’ve spent the past four years working for an NDP government that set an ambitious new course for Alberta. Depending on the outcome of the provincial election, they might soon be working for a dramatically different government that wants to slam the ship into reverse and perform a whiplash-inducing 180-degree turn.

They might want to bring a neck brace to work, just in case.

And then there are the thousands of regular Albertans who could find themselves flung overboard by the sudden change in direction. Take, for example, the United Conservative Party’s core campaign promise to scrap Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, which includes the carbon levy (a.k.a. the carbon tax). As a pledge, it is simple and clear. But it might not be so simple to implement and the repercussions aren’t so clear.

The NDP’s climate plan and the province’s economy are already deeply intertwined. Set-ting aside the $1.6-billion to be returned to Albertans in the form of rebates over three years, the government is investing more than $3.5-billion in climate-related projects including help-ing the province transition from coal-generated electricity, encouraging business to become energy efficient, supporting climate initiatives in Indigenous communities and even providing $220-million to finance a 33 per cent cut in the small business tax.

What’s received most of the publicity is the government’s announcement of $3-billion over 10 years for light rail transit projects in Calgary and Edmonton, including $1.5-billion for Calgary’s Green Line and another $1.5-billion for Edmonton’s LRT. Kenney has said he will honour the multi-billion-dollar commitments to public transportation—but he hasn’t said how he will pay for them if he kills the carbon tax.

Then there are all the jobs supported by the carbon tax. According to the government, the climate plan has so far supported 5,000 jobs plus an additional 2,300 through programs under Energy Efficiency Alberta. On the books are another 20,000 jobs expected to be created in the coming years.

If Kenney becomes premier, he can certainly scrap the carbon tax. In fact, he has promised the Carbon Tax Repeal Act will be the first legislative bill introduced. But, as former premier Ralph Klein liked to say, for every action in politics there is an equal and opposite reaction. Not only does Kenney have to find the money to pay for the transportation projects, he’ll have to find the money for public institutions, including universities and hospitals, that are paying for projects to improve energy efficiency and cut emissions.

Then there’s the complicated nexus connecting the carbon tax, the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline project and the federal government. Prime Minister Trudeau initially gave conditional approval to the pipeline project expressly because of Premier Notley’s climate plan. If Kenney kills the carbon tax and fights a federal price on carbon, how does that help Alberta’s fight to get a pipeline to tidewater? The fact is, simply cancelling something doesn’t mean the repercussions are magically cancelled too.

This doesn’t just apply to the carbon tax, either. Kenney has promised a “summer of repeal” where he will roll back a litany of NDP legislation. That is certainly his right if he wins a majority government. He’ll have the civil service scrambling to change direction to scrap programs and draw up new legislation. But what are the implications of his promise to repeal the Enhanced Protection for Farm and Ranch Workers Act, which provides health and safety protection to Alberta’s paid farm workers, including the right to join a union? What will be the fallout from his pledge to stop the government’s overhaul of the school curriculum (a process that actually began under the previous Progressive Conservative government)? What will be the cost of Kenney’s promise to scrap Notley’s $3.7-billion deal with CN and CP to lease 4,400 rail cars to ship Alberta oil out of the province?

When the NDP became government in 2015, it charted a new direction. Besides introducing the carbon tax, it increased the minimum wage, banned political donations from unions and corporations, introduced an Alberta Child Benefit and changed the Labour Relations Code. The list goes on.

But Notley did not wrench the government backward. She did not implement a summer of repeal to lay waste to the PC legacy.

That’s what Kenney is promising to do this year. It is an unprecedented pledge with potential for a wrenching impact not only on the civil servants who will suddenly have to start rowing backwards—but on Albertans who will be hurt by the whipsaw change in direction.

Graham Thomson is a political analyst, member of the Legislature Press Gallery and former Edmonton Journal political columnist.

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