PHOTO CREDIT - Dave Cournoyer (Flickr Creative Commons)
PHOTO CREDIT – Dave Cournoyer (Flickr Creative Commons)

By Jenn Mentanko

Oil prices, budget cuts, tuition hikes, floor crossing, and a provincial election: Alberta has been a whirlwind of political controversy this year. For Rachel Notley, New Democratic Party leader of Alberta, it’s just another day at the office.

After winning the NDP leadership election on Oct. 18, 2014, Notley has proven to be an outspoken and critical leader, relentless in her opposition to numerous Progressive Conservative decisions. Now she is running a headstrong campaign in hopes of becoming Alberta’s next premier, ending the Conservative dynasty in our province.

In February, I had the pleasure of chatting with Notley about the provincial budget and her stance on corporate taxes. Overall, she stands by her motto of fairness for Albertans, an attitude that has gained momentum throughout the province and could potentially earn her a spot as Alberta’s newest premier.

J: With Prentice’s nine per cent cut in mind, how would you have reacted to falling oil prices in the upcoming budget?

R: Well, one of the first points we’ve made of course is that the drop in oil prices was not unpredictable. Everyone has known forever that oil prices go up, and then they come down. The fact that we’re in a panic, crisis mode is entirely the fault of this PC government. They’ve squandered our resources during the good times and failed to plan for the bad times. So that’s the first point.

The second point is that as we go forward, we need to be sure that the burden of managing the fiscal challenge is shared fairly. By focusing on a cut to services, that’s not what we’re going to see happen. That is going to disproportionally affect the most vulnerable citizens.

J: How will these cuts directly affect Albertans?

R: Well it’s hard to say because we don’t know yet if he’s going to do it across the board or exactly what it’s going to look like, but I suspect if he does it across the board, a five per cent cut to our education system will mean that kids will not get as good an education as they would otherwise. We’ll be paying for that for years. If you’re in a kindergarten class with 30 kids when it should be 17, then you may take two extra years to learn how to read. That will effect your education throughout the course of your school career. So these aren’t one-time cuts that you feel for a short period of time and then we carry on. These are cuts that have long standing impacts. Just like when you increase funding for education you don’t see the result right away. Right? Same thing as when you cut it. That cut stays with you for a long time. It’s that sort of short sighted, reactive, panicked planning that undermines the ability of Alberta to truly reach its full potential.

J: So, it looks like the next election will focus on money. How will your campaign reflect that?

R: It’s about choices and it’s about fairness. Our view is that we need to look at our revenue source. Just now I was looking at numbers. We have the lowest corporate tax rate in the country. This premier has refused to consider asking corporations in Alberta to carry their fair share, or shoulder their fair share of the burden that they have been presented Albertan’s with through their failure to plan. So, it’s about fairness. So, we’re going to have to tell kids in kindergarten that they’re going to have to deal with an extra seven or eight kids in their class? But we’re not going to tell big, profitable corporations that they need to contribute more to this problem? That’s about picking winners and losers and it’s about Jim Prentice picking corporate insiders over kids. It’s about choices and it’s about values. It’s not all about the accounting sheet. It’s…we’re here because of their choices and we’re here because of their values. I believe those are off step with what Albertans believe and see for their future.

J: You were just in Grande Prairie. What did you hear from Albertans there? What did they say about the budget cut?

R: Well, a lot of folks were again talking about the fact that corporations need to pay their fair share and that we need to get rid of the flat tax, and we need to move to a progressive tax system. They were saying that, you know, social infrastructure or public services should not be threatened as a result of this. We need stability, we need predictability and we need stable funding in this province. There is a cost to the chaos, right?

J: So, taxing a corporation…that is something you would do?

R: Yes, I think we would likely do that. Yep, absolutely. I will say that Grande Prairie was a little bit more conservative. I was surprised in other parts, like Red Deer. I met with some business people and they sounded like they were reading out of the NDP policy handbook, it was crazy. It surprised me actually. I found that in other parts of the province too. In Grande Prairie, it was a little bit more reserved. Another thing they said is quite frankly, they don’t see their economy slowing down in a big way. So they still need their public services because their local economy is not going to be massively impacted by this because they are a mostly natural gas servicing community and forestry, and agriculture.

J: Is that something we need to focus more on instead of our oil?

R: Well that’s the other thing of course. We need to focus on other strong points of the economy. One of the upsides to this, I mean if you can find one…you have to put an asterisk beside it because no one wants to see anybody lose their jobs. The fact of the matter is it means input costs for some of the industries will go down, which is going to make those industries more profitable. Access to labour will become easier for industries that have slimmer profit margins. They won’t be competing with these massive monolithic, the big oil and gas companies. They wont necessarily be competing with them, so their businesses might have a little bit more room to grow.

Obviously with the low dollar, it means that a lot of our exports will go up. This is still a serious situation, but we need to put it into context. It’s interesting going to different regions and hearing different regions talking about: “This isn’t going to affect us that much.” I heard that a lot more than I expected to. Interesting. We’re going to Fort McMurray the end of this week, I’m sure I will hear nothing but how desperate it is in Fort McMurray.

J: What have you heard from Edmontonians?

R: We haven’t actually done a formal reach out other than people we meet with everyday and certainly on the doorsteps we’re hearing the same thing. People want to see a fair tax system. People want to see corporations paying their fair share. They are frustrated that their school will be sacrificed in order to keep corporate taxes in this province artificially low.

The other thing, I want to say quickly is one of the things I’ve heard meeting with some business folks across the province is that they don’t see the corporate tax advantage as being what attracts investors. What attracts investors to Alberta is an available work force, a well-educated work force and public services that allow them to attract employees. So if they’re trying to invest in a community, and they want to bring their employees to that community, they can’t do it if they have to acknowledge to their employees that their kids are going to be in a class of 30 kids in a portable. Where they don’t get to go to the bathroom. Right? So, those kinds of things actually impact investment more than one or two points on the corporate tax rate.

J: You also talked about how this cut would affect the investigations for kids in care.

R: That’s a relatively small, a very small budget. It’s like $270, 000 for heaven sakes and that’s the government just backtracking on a promise they never wanted to make. It’s an irrelevant amount of money in terms of the context of the overall budget. But it is huge in terms of keeping this government accountable, particularly if they’re on the verge of making major cuts to human services and supports for families at risk. So if they’re on the verge of making cuts there, then the fact that they’re not allowing the children’s advocate to do his job is doubly immoral.

J: In the next election, what key platforms can Albertans expect in your upcoming campaign?

R: Generally speaking we will talk about issues of fairness and we will be talking about the value of our public services, the health of Alberta communities both economically and socially and we’re going to talk about the importance of understanding the long term investment that comes from these important public services. We will do our best to hold this government to account for the ridiculous situation that they’ve gotten us into.

J: I was looking online and Don Braid, the political columnist for the Calgary Herald, said that the “PC’s are carving a script for you to have a strong campaign.” They have this column where they do winners and losers of the week and you were the winner of the week.

R: Oh, when was that?

J: Last week.

R: Oh, I missed that! Woo, winner of the week, yay! Because of the massive cuts, right?

J: Yeah. So he said basically they are carving a script for you to have a strong campaign. Would you agree with that?

R: [Laughs] I’m not quite prepared to suggest that this is being done for our benefit. I will agree that they’re making themselves very vulnerable. They are making themselves very vulnerable because they are out of touch with the values and aspirations of most Albertans. They seem to think they can run the same campaign they ran in 1993. I don’t think they understand that Albertan’s are really not super thumbs up with that.

J: So that makes you a little optimistic about your campaign?

R: Yeah. But, I’m not optimistic in that I worry about what the implications of this are going to be if we can’t stop him. Because really, I’m more worried than optimistic because we need to stop this. You’re a bit too young to know, but the cuts that they made between 1993-1997 threw Alberta for a real loop and pushed us back in so many ways. We’re still paying the price for those cuts even today. If they are allowed to do that again I’m just not convinced that we’ll be able to rebound. A lot of people’s lives will be forever altered and not in a good way.

J: I am currently a student. What would these cuts mean for university students?

R: Well, post-secondary has already dealt with a seven per cent cut. If they go another five per cent, I think you’re going to see a massive reduction in the quality of education that students receive. I think you’re going to see costs go up very significantly for students and I think you’re going to see access and accessibility go down. So for students it means more debt, and less education. For those who wish they were students but can’t, it will mean less opportunity overall. For Albertans it will mean a less optimistic future because our overall education of our young people is going down.

J: What about scholarships and bursaries?

R: You know they’ve cut those quite dramatically already in the last few years and what it will mean is that many people will spend much longer getting their education or they won’t finish it. It will be two-fold. They’ll work more hours and learn less. Or, what will happen is the actual programs will get so disjointed that they’re in school for an extra year or two because they couldn’t get the courses they needed in a timely way. So, everything from bursaries to the accessibility of the program is going to undercut the quality of education and the efficiency for which you receive it and it’s going to cost you more.

J: I heard that the U of A law program faced a major tuition hike.

R: Massive. That’s the market modifiers.

J: Yeah, why is that?

R: So basically, they’ve been…if you go back to 2004 or 2005-ish, the government made a commitment that they would keep tuition in line with inflation. So they essentially called it a tuition freeze, but it was not actually a tuition freeze. The student union at the time agreed to call it that. The tuition only went up inline with inflation. There were two exceptions to that rule: one was a non-instructional fee and the other was a market modifier. In the case of non-instructional fees, students have been lobbying ever since to get regulations around non-instructional fees. They have been unsuccessful. I can’t remember if it’s Red Deer or Lethbridge…one of them have relatively low [non-instructional fees], but generally speaking on average across the province we have the highest non-instructional fees in the country. Although there are some low ones in Red Deer or Lethbridge, I can’t remember which.

Then the other one was market modifiers. They did a massive round of market modifiers about 2009 or 2010. They said we are doing this one time, one time only and we won’t ever do it again. But they never closed that loophole and now they did it a second time. It was really obnoxious because they announced it on December 23, when no students were around and they were all home. Right? So they didn’t tell the students that they had been consulting with.

What they are designed to do, in theory, is they go to those so-called “high-paid professions” and they make them more expensive on the assumption that you’re going to make more money if you’re in that program. So, that’s what they did with law. The problem is, is that it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy because kids from low-income and middle-income families can’t contemplate taking a $100,000 debt before they get their first freaking job. So, they just don’t go into it. So, the only kids that go into them are the kids of people like Prentice who have gone to private schools and whose parents have loads of money. The system just repeats itself. That sort of mobility that is so fundamentally important to our culture in this province, yeah know, anybody can make it if they just work hard enough, that idea of economic mobility and equality of opportunity just goes by the wayside.

J: I was speaking with Laurie Blakeman the other day, and she was talking to me about how she’s finding there is a new group of voters, 18-30, young educated voters. She wanted to reach out to them. How could this group of people voice their opinion about this? As a student, I’m not happy with this.

R: I think there is a number of different ways. I mean obviously just activism, as a whole needs to get some new energy into it. I think that, frankly, student movements in other parts of the country have been a lot more aggressive than in Alberta. That is a choice for students themselves to make. In terms of young people, we’re obviously all into social media. You’re seeing people share their political views and thoughts much more freely and I think that has allowed for, I think actually, that that group is helping to push the province into a more progressive place. I think actually the government is so out of touch they don’t see it yet. Because there are new avenues for community discussion, through places like social media, but not just social media, this sort of singular, “this is the editorial board of the Edmonton Journal”, directing everybody to what they should think, that prose has changed dramatically. People are developing their own opinions and you see a bit of common sense and they’re getting a little frustrated at what comes back to, that issue that I started about before, which is just fairness. Twenty-three year-olds can see what is unfair as well as someone who is 53.

J: Has social media affected your platform at all?

R: I don’t know that it has affected our platform; it will affect how we communicate about it. I’m just trying to think…no I think that we probably…because we had other, yeah know, we’re a political party so our job is to hear what people have to say. So obviously through social media we do hear what people have to say. But we would have done it through the more old-school things, old school strategies before. I think social media speeds up the conversation quite dramatically. To some extent that impacts our platform. Quite honestly, there’s a lot of people who had a lot of good ideas 30 years ago, which some of them are still very much in play. Just because it was old doesn’t mean it doesn’t have some quality to it. I think it’s just a question of… I think it helps sharing the merits of our conversation in a more democratized setting.

J: Okay great, I think I’ve got it all! Again, thanks for meeting with me; I know it’s such a busy time.

R: Well for me, I announced that I was running for the leadership of our party in May of last year and we haven’t actually stopped since then. It’s been oh we’ve got a leadership, oh we have four by-elections, and oh we have session, oh! From our perspective, I mean it was…we were in November and we were kind of sniffing in the air going, oh man they’re doing this early and we didn’t know for sure but we really suspected it in November so we just started. Everyone was so tired but we were just like, yeah sorry folks, the relaxation horizon has moved to summer of 2015 because we have an election between now and then. That‘s the upside of social media, thankfully. That’s the upside of how the conversation kind of unfolds so quickly. I was walking around telling everyone we’re having an election in the spring and no one believed me right. Then everyone shared very quickly, oh actually yeah it pretty much looks like that’s true.

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