Which course will NDP chart for 2018?

Above photo:The first NDP cabinet is sworn in at the Alberta Legislature, May 24, 2015. Photo: Premier of Alberta

It’s still more than a year until Albertans will head to the polls, but it often feels like the province is already in election mode.

The United Conservative party (UCP) has settled on a promise to fight what it calls “a job-killing carbon tax” and the Alberta Party is trying to gain momentum through its three-way leadership race. Meanwhile, the NDP is starting to highlight some undeniable signs of economic recovery in Alberta.

But the NDP can’t just stick to talking points in the lead-up to the 2019 election. They have two more budgets to deliver and, with a majority of seats in the Legislature, the opportunity to pass legislation that could cement the party’s impact as Alberta’s first left-of-centre government since the Great Depression.

For those on the left in Alberta, the wish list for an NDP government is still long: electoral reform; better parental leave in the public service; full day kindergarten for all Albertan children; de-funding most private schools; more affordable housing supports, etc.

This year’s sittings at the Alberta Legislature, however, may not include any more major progressive overhauls. The government’s policies and spending, just a year prior to the election, are likely to be cautious.

“We’ve been pretty clear, our intention is to build on a lot of work we’ve already done,” said Edmonton-Centre NDP MLA David Shepherd.

“We haven’t taken any extreme, radical actions. We’ve been balanced, focused and clear about our intent.”

Edmonton-Centre MLA David Shepherd. Photo via Alberta NDP

Shepherd lists off government initiatives such as staying the course on public sector wages despite a deep recession, offering an Alberta investor tax credit to help diversity the economy, and committing new infrastructure dollars, such as millions for a new cancer centre in Calgary.

But that spending has come at a cost. By late last year, the province was on track for a $10.3-billion deficit in 2017. It’s a figure that has resulted in credit downgrades and constant accusations of financial mismanagement by the opposition.

Shepherd says that after several years of steady spending, the NDP will be focusing on “fiscal balance” and opportunities to cost save. It’s a message that Finance Minister Joe Ceci has also floated publicly, suggesting in November 2017 that public sector unions accept wage freezes.

I think we’re going to see modest cuts in the upcoming budget, even in public services,” said Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta, a non-profit advocacy organization.

French said the NDP has signaled it will not keep spending at pace with population growth and inflation.

While opposition parties will try to hammer the government for its financial record, French said the NDP’s party messaging is likely to focus on issues on which they contrast strongly with the UCP – such as legislation passed in the fall to protect LGBTQ students and those in gay-straight alliances in schools.

“It puts the UCP in an awkward spot,” said French, noting that many in that party’s base don’t like the provincial direction on gay-straight alliances.

“But at the same time, the UCP wants to appeal to mainstream Albertans who want kids, regardless of a student’s sexual identity, to have a safe place in school, no matter where they go to school.”

Joel French, executive director of Public Interest Alberta. Photo via Facebook.

In the final year of the NDP government’s current mandate, French would like to see more regular reporting on greenhouse gas emissions and further investment in a stable public service.

But he believes Alberta’s revenue mix needs a shake-up if the government is to revitalize public services without incurring more debt. That shake-up could come in the form of a sales tax.

“The only alternative to massive cuts has to be a big change to our tax system,” he said.

“Ideally, the government starts to lead a conversation with Albertans about what the problem is.”

NDP leader Rachel Notley has flatly rejected her government introducing a sales tax during this term. French wondered whether the Alberta Party, under the helm of a new leader, could push the governing party to take another stand in the lead up to the next election.

Municipalities are also hoping for more investments before the 2019 election, especially in public transit infrastructure and housing.

Cheryl Oxford, speaking on behalf of the office of Edmonton’s mayor, hopes funding for projects like the capital city’s LRT expansion is outlined in the next budget. She also notes the City would like to see money for a green energy system in a neighbourhood being built at the site of the old downtown airport.

Green infrastructure like that could continue being funded by the new provincial carbon levy. The NDP government has tied a number of projects to revenues from the levy, most notably a major infusion of money for Calgary’s new Green Line LRT. That’s the same carbon levy the UCP pledges to repeal if it forms government in 2019.

Plans to end homelessness in cities and towns around the province, along with other poverty-reduction initiatives, are awaiting new federal money to be delivered, but some of it needs matching dollars from the provincial government yet to be detailed.

So it remains to be seen if progressive organizations and supporters who enabled the NDP to end 80 years of conservative governments in 2015 will see their wish lists fulfilled before the next election. The best indicator of the government’s agenda for this year will undoubtedly be the throne speech in March, at which point we will learn whether the NDP will stay the course they have already set or if there are some big changes left to come.

Alexandra Zabjek

Alexandra Zabjek is a journalist who has spent the last 10 years covering the politics and people of Edmonton. In addition to freelance work, she is a contributor at CBC and is co-host of The Broadcast: A Podcast About Women and Politics.