Greens base their approach to politics on basic principles, such as sustainability, social justice, ecological wisdom, respect for diversity and sincere democracy. Measured against tenets such as these, the 2015 Alberta budget is both unfair and unimaginative. And because it was introduced in a manipulative way, the whole process feels unsavoury, even undemocratic.
To the government’s credit the underlying message of the budget is honest – we can’t go on as we have because it would be unsustainable to do so. A government simply cannot function properly when it is dependent as ours has been for many years on volatile resource revenues. It was good too to hear an acknowledgement that those non-renewable resource revenues to which we have been addicted are not even ours. We have been consuming way more than our share, cutting deeply into our children’s and grandchildren’s inheritance, and that for sure is not sustainable.
Many people have been saying these things for a long time. It has taken a sudden steep drop in oil prices to force a change in the government’s thinking. But if the 10 year plan works as it is supposed to – so that starting in 2018 progressively increasing amounts will go into the Heritage Trust Fund – that will be good.
On the other hand, cuts to government departments such as environment and advanced education, threaten Alberta’s social, economic and physical sustainability. By bringing in only an additional $ 1.5 billion the budget for 2015 – 2016 the government endangers Albertans. Tax havens – which Alberta continues to be – aren’t secure places to live and work. They are precarious.
Much was said by the Minister of Finance about protecting vulnerable people in dealing with the revenue shortfall, and some things in the budget clearly speak to that goal, including some modest spending increases for people with disabilities. But increases in a wide range of user fees reveal the government’s true colours.
Consider the many increases in court fees and addition of new ones. Given the already very serious access to justice crisis in Alberta – the rich can afford justice, the rest of us, well not so much – these changes further imperil the rule of law.
Even the modest increases to provincial parks user fees are a mistake. Those parks are our common treasure and should not be inaccessible to poorer Albertans. But just as the national parks have become too expensive for many people, so the provincial parks look to become the same.
All user fees increases fit the same mold. They will be minor nuisances to many Albertans but will make life more difficult for the poor.
The harm of larger user fees looks especially mean-minded in light of what could have been a meaningful break with the flat 10% income tax for individuals, but was not. The government proposes to increase income tax for those earning over $ 100,000 a year by 0.5 % going up to a “whopping” 1.5 % in 2018. And there will be a temporary additional 0.5 % per year on those earning over $ 250,000. So the flat tax principle has been jettisoned – and that’s good – but these increments are a joke and leave a lot of revenue uncollected.
And why does the new health care tax take effect when income reaches $ 50,000 but the higher income tax rate starts at $ 100,000? Taxing income is taxing income – there is no need for the distinction.
As a Green I should love the higher fuel tax but it’s the same old story – the increase (4 cents per litre) won’t deter most Albertans from consuming gas, but it will hurt the less affluent. We’ve built unsustainable cities where most people have to use cars and trucks. And to make matters worse, inner-city real estate is desirable and hence expensive, so many poorer people have to live further out making them all the more dependent on their vehicles. If there were fuel tax rebates to poorer Albertans, I would be a fan. As it is, the increased fuel tax is further abuse of the disadvantaged.
The failure to increase taxes on corporations at all is stunning, and not in a good way. Yes, times are tough but letting corporations off the hook entirely is just wrong. Worse, the government’s pre-budget survey revealed that 71% of Albertans favour raising the corporate rate. So much for consultation. Together with the derisory increases in income tax rates for the better off, the message is clear: wealthy Albertans continue to escape paying their fair share. It’s shameful really.
Cheerleaders for the well-off and corporations often claim that increasing their taxes would not raise very much more revenue. But as we all know (and increases in user fees and traffic fines show) every little bit helps. And if not very much money would be raised, that means the extra burden wouldn’t be very heavy.
Here as you would expect this government’s performance is dismal. Alberta’s extremely high GHG emissions scream out for a meaningful carbon tax but the budget contains no such thing. (We need to extend the reach of the present levy beyond the biggest emitters and also raise the amount substantially.) In some jurisdictions carbon taxes are revenue neutral. But a real carbon tax in Alberta should generate revenue for long overdue innovation. Because we have subsidized our carbon industries (oil, gas and coal) for so long, we need to put the proceeds of a carbon tax toward development of sustainable alternative industries and also to relieving the burden of a carbon tax on the poor.
We usually think of diversity in terms of ecology. But a diverse economy is also a good thing as it helps ensure sustainability. As noted above, a carbon tax could provide funds for supporting development of a more diverse economy but that was an opportunity completely missed by a government that is unimaginative in the extreme.
Healthy, strong democracy
As always it’s appropriate to ask, has the government acted so as to enhance our democracy or detract from it? The premier and others in Cabinet led Albertans to believe the budget would be more draconian than it turned out to be, and it would seem that was a deliberately deceptive strategy. It is unacceptable that, because there will soon be an election, the government sought to manipulate Albertans in this cynical way.
Janet Keeping is leader of the Green Party of Alberta.