Danielle Smith’s first, and hopefully last, budget is an expensive election campaign ad that every news outlet in the province devoted hours of coverage and tens of thousands of words to covering. Which is a shame because it should be taken as seriously as any crappy campaign junk mail you’d ignore and throw in the trash.
And while conservative political rhetoric in this country seems to have internalized the most popular white supremacist slogan in the world, this campaign budget commits Alberta to the same disastrous policies that are actually lowering the life expectancy of Albertans.
Let’s get into a potpourri of budget details in this glorified election pamphlet that you won’t find elsewhere.
"No Tory Junk Mail" decal from Etsy.
The “Alberta Model” continues apace
The UCP will increase the Mental Health and Addictions ministry budget by 37.5 per cent, from $200 million to $275 million. The budget does not explain how that money will be spent. At the same time, the UCP are cutting 14 percent from the budget for harm reduction (from $35.5 million annually to $30.4 million.) That’s the “Alberta Model” in action.
The business plan for this ministry repeatedly references “recovery capital,” a bit of jargon you won’t encounter in legitimate scholarship but which is a big favorite of Last Door, a conservative non-profit from B.C. that has become politically entwined with both the B.C. Liberals and the UCP. That recovery capital model appears to have been lifted from an American book published in 1999, Coming Clean: Overcoming Addiction without Treatment.
The UCP say that they will track whether or not their approach is working with data collected from an app called “My Recovery Plan.” The government will be paying Last Door for that app—and forcing all publically-funded treatment facilities to subscribe.
According to the business plan for the mental health and addiction ministry the “Recovery Capital Index,” data from Albertans in treatment who use the “My Recovery Plan” app will be used to justify future moves by the ministry. “Once a sufficient baseline is established, it will be reflected in future business plans,” say the documents.
The UCP are also allocating $9.5 million for workforce development and capacity building at their “Recovery Communities” as well as therapeutic living units in provincial correctional facilities. There is also a plan for a new Recovery Training Institute that will provide training on best practice treatment methods.
The government is also allocating $12.5 million to establish therapeutic living units and transitional support in Alberta’s prisons. The budget is light on details here, but it’s reasonable to assume this is a first step towards apprehension and mandatory treatment, which figures in and around the UCP have been arguing for.
The UCP have also set aside $11.2 million to expand the Virtual Opioid Dependency Program. No details were included in the budget on what that means. Currently people who use the program only get four months worth of opioid agonist treatment and then have to pay out of pocket.
Alberta Sheriffs get a big bump and an Alberta Provincial Police is still on the menu
The Alberta Sheriffs are big winners in this budget: the UCP are adding an extra $23 to their budget, representing a 21.4 percent year-over-year increase.
The business plan for the public safety ministry says that one of its priorities is a “further examination of an Alberta Police Service.”
Back when the Sheriffs were introduced several years ago there was a lot of speculation that they were being introduced as a precursor to an Alberta Provincial Police. That now seems closer to becoming reality than ever before.
Nothing on housing
The government used $13.4 billion to pay down provincial debt in 2022–23 rather than using this one-time windfall to do something about the housing crisis in Alberta’s major cities. Every day thousands of people sleep outside in tents in the dead of a prairie winter because this government is making the choice to make a meaningless line on a graph go down.
Paying down $13 billion in provincial debt when a dysentery outbreak roiled through Edmonton’s unhoused population for months is a criminal use of scarce resources. There isn’t even a ministry focused on housing anymore, it’s all just rolled into the Seniors, Community and Social Services ministry.
The incoming election
This budget is not a serious budget document. It's an expensive campaign flier paid for by us. Every line item that talks about increased health or social service spending could vanish in an instant the minute after the election.
And the election is only three months away now. The UCP, on the verge of collapse in Kenney’s last days, seem to have found their footing under Smith.They’ve lucked into a massive royalty windfall and are handing out money to any potential ally with a pulse and the initial Danielle Smith missteps have faded away. Meanwhile the NDP have run a head down campaign, focused on avoiding missteps but failing to build any real momentum or buzz.
The one encouraging thing is that the UCP are talking about healthcare a lot. They’re doing an announcement every other day on all the things they’re doing to fix the healthcare system, trying to look busy. Smith and her hand-picked AHS czar even held a presser the other day that said no healthcare crisis here, we fixed it in 100 days.
This is the fundamental error that the NDP fell into last election when they couldn’t shut up about pipelines and how much they loved oil and gas. If the last thing someone thinks about before they vote in the next provincial election is healthcare the odds are good that person is voting for the NDP. No one trusts Smith and the UCP on this issue.
Our healthcare system is broken and the UCP broke it. But the NDP are going to have to do more than just not be the UCP if they want to win, they will have to do something bold. But the good news for Notley and the NDP is that the recent government windfalls mean there’s a lot of funding to potentially work with here. There’s budgetary room to be very bold. Wages and working conditions for health care workers could be drastically improved. Living space for every unhoused person in the province could be secured. There’s enough in the treasury for the NDP to get very creative. But they’ll have to get creative soon, or this could be the first of many Danielle Smith budgets to come.