On 9 January 2017 at 11:23 a.m. I received an email from the Government of Alberta with a press release entitled “Albertans asked for input into Budget 2017” [News Release]. Puzzled by the contradiction between the desirability of open public consultation on matters of great public interest and these closed door meetings, I hopefully contacted Mike Brown, the Press Secretary for Treasury Board President Joe Ceci, at 12:12 p.m.to learn where the Edmonton event was to be held. As veteran political columnist, Graham Thomson, reported in today’s Edmonton Journal [ndps-public-consultations-look-more-like-public-relations10-1-17-ej] he was able to get a response from Brown, albeit unsatisfactorily, on the secret location of the meeting. At the time of writing (6:30 p.m. 11 January 2017), I am still waiting for an acknowledgement.
As a follower of provincial politics and budget preparations over the past three decades, it baffles me why any government would wish to insulate itself from open public debate on fiscal matters. At a time when it should occur to a new government that past budgetary inaction was restricting future fiscal flexibility (daycare funding?) and undermining the long-term sustainability of government finances, a public relations approach is adopted. No wonder voters distrust governments today. Just as Justin Trudeau and Kathleen Wynne are attempting damage control regarding the “cash for access” scandals and the Prime Minister doing a “meet Canadians” tour, public cynicism reaches new heights.
While it is normal for governments to wish to hear from its key supporters and constituencies on their budget wants, surely it is incumbent for governments to hear advice from those who may have different views? Unfortunately, this in camera advice will not be known and, hence, not publicly debated. Claims made behind closed doors and incorporated into public policy are not always evidence-based or willingly challenged by politicians or senior officials. Further damaging the government’s credibility, as it “encourages” views from the public, is the reluctance to release the names of persons whom it has invited to these fora.
According to the News Release, Mr. Ceci “will host meetings with community leaders and the public while visiting towns and cities around the province.” The release further states: :
“We saw some promising signs of economic stability leading into the new year, but there is still a lot of work to do as we prepare for the next budget. These are still challenging economic times and I would like to hear from Albertans about their priorities and ideas on how to best meet their needs without increasing costs or affecting front-line services.”
Also accompanying the release were links to online submissions (up to 1500 words) on the budget and instructions for an telephone townhall with the Premier and Minister at the end of this month.
So what are the policy questions that these invited guests should be asking the Minister and his designated officials?
- How (and when) is the deficit to be eliminated? A more basic question is should the deficit be eliminated?
- What percentage of the proposed deficit elimination measures will come from new revenue (higher taxes, royalties, user fees, new taxes) versus program expenditure reductions?
- What is the government’s strategy on salary and benefit negotiations with its unions and how will executive compensation be addressed in provincial agencies?
- How will the government’s capital program make the Alberta economy more productive in the long run?