I try to look at these types of documents with as objective an eye as I can - numbers in the millions and billions tend to make my head hurt, as they're so completely unrelatable to my every day life (more on that in an upcoming blog post).
That said, however, after reading the entire document, one phrase kept asserting itself over and over in my mind... "ARE YOU FREAKING KIDDING ME?!?!"
Okay... now that I've got that out of the way, let's take a look at the Wildrose Alternative Budget (full document available here).
Increasing spending on health care, education, children’s services, public safety, and seniors and social supports by the rate of inflation plus population growth (which was approximately 2.2% in 2010).
Alright... now, I've gone on the record time and again as being in favour of spending restraint. We shouldn't waste money. Seriously. If I do it at home, my wife throws things at me. And that's if I waste my OWN money. Government doesn't HAVE its own money - the money that government spends is OUR money - yours and mine. We worked for it. We earned it. And they took it. Or it's a royalty on a resource that we own. But the money's ours, and government shouldn't waste it.
BUT... the Wildrose often likes to echo the mantra from the Ralph Klein days (which makes sense, as they're adding notable Klein-era Tories all the time, much to the chagrin of some of their original membership) that "government should be run the same way you run your household". They even refer to that idea a little later in their budget alternative. So let's play a little game I like to call "inflation plus population growth".
Last year, your household budget for maintenance was $200. You spent $175, because you're awesome. This year, you had no new children, and inflation was - oh, let's say 1%. So, if you use the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule, you can budget $202 for maintenance. Which you should be able to swing - after all, you're awesome.
That sound you just heard downstairs was your water heater blowing up. A new one costs about $500, uninstalled.
Not a giant deal, you say. This is an unusual situation, I can whip out the credit card to deal with this... Oh, no you can't. You can't do that, because we govern our home under the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule. Turn on the stove and start filling the bathtub with hot water from the pots on the stovetop, because we don't run deficits in THIS home.
The Wildrose points out - in their budget document - that a private member's bill brought forward from their caucus last year would have codified the Wildrose Spending Restraint Rule as law, and it was defeated. It was defeated, of course, because it's a stupid thing to have codified under law. About as stupid as a law outlawing deficit spending. Sometimes, bad things happen. Sometimes, you need to spend money to fix them when those bad things happen. And forcing politicians to "break the law" when those bad things DO happen is wasting our legislators' time in order to score cheap political points and satisfy the egos of the bill's author and sponsors.
Repeatedly throughout the document, the Wildrose Alliance makes reference to what they call horrible over-spending from the PC's "over the last decade". Half of that decade saw their hero Ralph Klein as Premier and half of their current caucus as Cabinet Members, although they go to great pains not to mention those facts. And another of those years saw the budget overseen and presented by one of their newest publicly-lauded party members, Dr. Lyle Oberg, who was Minister of Finance in 2006-07. So, which is it, Wildrose? Did Ralph and Lyle suck, or were they awesome? You can't have it both ways...
There are also communities in the province that need new schools and health facilities immediately. Only the most urgent of these should be undertaken this next year with a commitment to refrain from opening any new facilities without the budget to fully staff them.
An excellent idea. Take the new South Calgary Health Campus, for example: They shouldn't start accepting emergency cases there until all 293 beds at the new hospital are fully staffed. I don't care if you're bleeding from your carotid artery, get to the Rockyview Hospital - tell them Danielle sent you.
This year, the Wildrose Balanced Budget Alternative proposes to increase overall departmental spending for the Departments of Health, Education, Solicitor General, Seniors and Community Supports, and Children and Youth Services to the rate of inflation and population growth, which in 2010 was approximately 2.2% (*Stats Canada and Alberta Finance). All other departmental budgets will be kept relatively unchanged or decreased where recommended by the PCs in Budget 2011.
Okay. I'm not going to go into the "Which hospitals won't you open? Which schools will you close?" line of questioning, because it's already been done. We've got new health centres opening, and they need staff - which costs money. We've got teachers getting a contracted 5% raise - if their district budget increases by 2.2%, the extra money's going to come from...? (DON'T say "selling the CBE's new headquarters" - it'll just make Josh Traptow's head explode when he reads it).
What I AM going to take umbrage with here is the statement "All other departmental budgets will be kept relatively unchanged or decreased where recommended by the PCs in Budget 2011".
We can't trust the PC's to run a lemonade stand... there's nothing even remotely conservative about them... they're in need of a "3-step program" to deal with their "spending addiction"... and yet, where they suggested spending reductions, you're just saying "okay, we're good with that"?
Folks, this is political laziness at its worst. And it's dangerous.
The Provincial Budget was written with hundreds of staff and full access to government financial details, over months of working meetings, deliberations, internal audits, and polishing. They had access to the full weight of the public service in writing it - because it's not the PC Budget for Alberta, it's the Government Budget for Alberta. Wildrose has to use their own people, and their own resources. The entire document is a massive undertaking. No one expects the Wildrose to be able to produce a mirror to that document, taking apart every ministry and department budget expense line-by-line. But if you're the party that likes to think of itself as the next government - if your members introduce your leader as "the next Premier of Alberta" - you've simply GOT to do better than an 18-page rebuttal document that includes a title page and 8 charts that take up at least half-a-page each. That's 13 pages worth of text. This might be the last Budget to come out before the next General Election. You're proposing we hand you the keys to a nearly $40 Billion economy and our entire social infrastructure, based on 13 pages of text.
The Wildrose Alternative Budget was released the day after the Government presented the actual Budget document. One day after. The sober, reasoned construction of a mature and well-constructed rebuttal to 500 pages of detailed financial information and fiscal policy was released after less than 24 hours. I don't know if you can write a budget rebuttal hopped up on Red Bull or not, but the only other alternative I can see is that the rebuttal was written before the authors saw the original budget, and they just filled in some blanks. But the meat-and-potatoes of that 13 page rebuttal was written before they saw the budget. Which reeks of "politics as usual" - "I haven't read it, but I oppose it". THERE'S the refreshing change Albertans are looking for.
I get it. I really do. In the age of retail politics and Twitter, you've got to get your rebuttal out as soon as possible, while people are still talking about the Budget. Three hours from now Charlie Sheen's going to do another interview, and you'll lose your casual audience. But doing it FAST shouldn't be the focus of a party that wants to form government. Being thoughtful and thorough should be their focus. If you want to win the hearts and minds of Albertans, start by giving them what they deserve. Take a week, and do it right. Albertans don't deserve slick retail politics. That assumes they're fickle and simple-minded. Albertans deserve thoughtful and deliberate planning. They're smart enough to read a document without the pretty coloured charts (that indicate Wildrose proposals in blue and PC Government actions in red or pink - nice touch!), and they're serious enough about their government to read something at least as thick as the local paper. Albertans are smarter than you give them credit for. They don't just want it fast - this isn't drive-thru governance. They want - and deserve - for it to be done RIGHT.
Now, none of this is to say that the document is completely devoid of any redeeming qualities: The title page is nice, and the graphs are appealing (though VERY poorly labelled). And there are even a few good ideas in it, like shrinking the size of cabinet. I think we need a strong public service, but that doesn't mean we need 23, 25, or 29 ministers overseeing it. And as I said, I favour the principle of eliminating waste, and spending only what MUST be spent, and saving the rest for a rainy day. I get that from my parents, who in turn were raised by people who grew up in the Great Depression.
But this document reads, to me, like a badly constructed joke more than a serious proposal from a party that hopes to form government.
I'm not going to tell you what you should think - read the document for yourself. Come to your own conclusions.
But I *am* telling you what *I* think.
I think... "Are you freaking KIDDING me?"