Perhaps the most striking feature of the Alberta New Democratic Party’s time as the governing party in Alberta is something that, ultimately, has little to do with the governing party itself. The past two years have seen a growing number of Albertans asking for financial clarity not of the NDP, but rather from the official opposition, the Wildrose Party, in the form of a shadow budget.
When I’ve discussed the calls for a shadow budget on Twitter, I’ve been told that prior to the recent spurt of interest the idea of releasing a shadow budget has been the exception rather than the norm, and that this is an unfair standard by which to judge the WRP. There is truth to this: shadow budgets aren’t the norm, and the calls the WRP are facing are exceptional. That said, I don’t believe that the expectation of a shadow budget is misplaced, as the times are exceptional.
Alberta’s economy is in rough shape. After many lucrative years of oil revenue that allowed the Progressive Conservatives to run the province on an unsustainable combination of low taxes and high operating expenses, oil prices have collapsed. The decimated resource revenue has left Alberta in a tough place, and the NDP plan to navigate the situation is what one would expect of a government of their leanings: raise taxes on high-income earners and avoid making cuts to public employees through deficit financing.
The NDP plan has not sat well with many. There have been calls to adopt Klein-style cuts that would gut the public sector, while others have suggested that Alberta may finally need to implement a Provincial Sales Tax. The WRP, for their part, have called for spending cuts, but provided little detail as to what might need to be cut to balance the budget. This is where the calls for the shadow budget gain credence: balancing the province’s budget is no easy task, and any political party who hopes to run the province must provide a sound argument rather than general hand-waving.
Jacques Derrida, when asked by a French magazine about the role of the public intellectual, noted that it is the job of a public intellectual to identify a problem, to cut that problem out, and to insert a new solution in its place so that the whatever the problem might be doesn’t return. This, it seems to me, is a fair standard to apply to our politicians. I want our politicians not just to criticise each other, but to present policy alternatives. It’s one thing to call for policy to be changed, but unless a party can formulate an alternative, it is difficult for the public to feel certain that the problem really will be solved, rather than just shifted.
A problem as large and multifaceted as Alberta’s economic woes deserves a comprehensive solution. A shadow budget is a complicated document, especially when one considers that opposition parties likely don’t have access to all the information they need to make it as accurate as they might hope—however, in light of the magnitude of the current crisis, it seems necessary. While the WRP may protest that so detailed a document is too difficult to pull together, they should consider that the Alberta Party, despite having only one sitting MLA, has managed to create three shadow budgets to date. While some voters will approve or the Alberta Party’s solutions and while others will find aspects of the plans distasteful, all voters are welcome to read and to criticise the Alberta Party’s plans with a full knowledge of how each individual policy fits into the Alberta Party’s vision for the province.
While the WRP have not formed government and so we can’t judge how their plan, whatever it may be, would play out were they in power, there is a helpful analogue that we can consider. While running for President of the United States, Donald Trump pledged time and again to replace the Affordable Care Act—Obamacare—with something that would be (vaguely) better. These promises escalated when he became President and eventually included such assurances as that everyone would have insurance, that no one would lose their coverage, and that the new plan wouldn’t cost more money. The actual plan that Trump put forward to congress failed to meet the expectations Trump had raised, and when he was queried about the problems he seemed to be having, Trump stated that “nobody new that health care could be so complicated.”
Anyone who sat down to attempt to fix the troubled American health care system would have discovered very quickly that health care is quite complicated. This, here, is the benefit of a shadow budget: drafting a shadow budget forces politicians to consider issues carefully and to commit to solutions. A shadow budget puts the lie to off-the-cuff promises made on the campaign trail with the intent of offering something to everyone regardless of plausibility. Derek Fildebrandt can tell us that his party will balance the budget all he wants, but until he’s put forward a detailed plan to either increase revenue without increasing taxes or to trim spending without impacting services, there is no reason for us to believe him let alone vote for his party. A call for a shadow budget isn’t merely an attempt to put undue pressure on a political party, as many of the WRP’s supporters might insist: a call for a shadow budget is a rejection of the scammy, used-car-salesman approach that’s iconic of the Trump presidency.
If the current downturn in the Alberta economy were just a mild hiccup, and if the NDP budget shortfall were entirely of their own making and not the result of years of PC mismanagement paired with historically low revenues, it might be fair of the WRP merely to criticise the NDP here and there over one issue or another. But given the exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, Albertans are owed a thorough explanation. If the WRP want to be in charge of the province, they should prepare a shadow budget that, barring small tweaks due to insufficient access to financial information, could actually be implemented. To ask this of them is merely the responsible thing to do, and something that we should ask of all political parties.